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Where's the (robot) butler? Good high-tech help is still hard to find

Robots in all shapes and sizes are starting to work alongside people more closely than ever

By Tim Hornyak
May 23, 2014 11:30 AM ET

IDG News Service - If you're looking for signs of our collective robotic future, it's either terrifyingly near or forever just around the corner.

While debate on military robots heated up this month thanks to UN talks about the development of lethal autonomous robots -- and military robots are evolving quickly thanks to defense budgets -- household robots remain far from ubiquitous. More than a half-century after the world's first industrial robot, Unimate, began work at a General Motors plant, most commercial robots still work in factories.

The ones that are in households, such as the roughly 10 million robot vacuum cleaners led by iRobot's Roomba, have usually been limited to performing one task only, like sucking up dirt.

Computers and robots can beat us at dedicated tasks like chess or painting cars, though humans still have a massive intelligence advantage in terms of general knowledge. That's a good thing if you fear a robot uprising. Not so great if you're waiting for that perfect humanoid robot servant from science fiction films, like a C-3PO.A

While simple real-world tasks like navigating across a room without prior knowledge of it remain very challenging for many robots, researchers are slowly advancing the field, newly fueled by acquisitions and funding coming from tech giants like Google.

Hitachi, for instance, recently announced improvements to its pint-sized humanoid robot Emiew 2 that allow it to banter with humans and tell jokes, as well as have better awareness of its surroundings. About 80 cm tall and weighing 14 kg, Emiew 2 has a bright red outer shell and scoots around on two wheels under its legs. Originally developed in 2005, the platform is designed to be a helper and guide for people in office settings.A

"The technology could be used to help humans and robots coexist in the future," said Keiji Kageyama of Hitachi Research Laboratory. "It's using a laser sensor to detect where people are in busy office settings in real time and plans a path to avoid them."A

Emiew 2 can move at 6 km per hour, about as fast as a person walking briskly. The laser sensor can track people walking around the robot, provide data to plot their expected path, and help Emiew 2 to avoid collisions, especially when it anticipates that people might come out of a blind spot.A

While Hitachi doesn't have plans to commercialize Emiew 2 yet, it believes the technology could be used in machines that provide automated tours of venues like museums or exhibition halls.A

Another humanoid machine that's designed to operate in everyday environments is NAOA from France's Aldebaran Robotics. Engineered to be a "friendly companion around the house," NAO is only 58-cm tall and has a toy-like charm as well as sophisticated sensors such as a sonar rangefinder and face-detection algorithms.

Reprinted with permission from Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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