Robots, 'now among us,' hit Smithsonian

With 1 million robots in use, museum adds to collection ranging from R2-D2 to its newest, Marv, one of the smallest in the world

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Gill Pratt, program manager for robotic science at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, says it won't be too long before we have robots that can clean up a table, put dishes in a dishwasher and then stack them in a cabinet.

But Pratt doesn't expect to see robots that can do much beyond "a slice of what humans can do well."

IBM's Watson, for instance, which recently competed against humans on Jeopardy, doesn't have common sense and doesn't really understand the topics it had to deal with on the TV quiz show, said Pratt. "It's just particularly good at the extraction task of finding those answers," he said.

What Pratt wants are robots that are able to go into dangerous environments do necessary tasks, such as fetching objects. "I want to stop using people for those tasks, particularly if it is in a military environment," he said.

The Smithsonian also expanded its robotics collection with donated items relating to the development of autonomous mobile robot technology by Velodyne, including a laser vision system used in DARPA's grand challenge races.

The Smithsonian's collecting efforts are, of course, ongoing. "When there are breakthroughs that we can identify as historically significant in the history of robotics, we want to collect them," Stephens said.

[ For more information about the robots, visit the American History Museum in Washington and head toward the Lemelson Center to see its Spark!Lab, which offers some hands-on displays for kids. (Note: If Congress shuts down the government, the Smithsonian will be closed.) ]

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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