Tag Archives: robot

First bot with a human brain?

neuronsOK, so it won’t be a whole human brain… but two researchers at the University of Warwick Reading are preparing to upgrade their rat-neuron robot to use human brain cells instead:

To make the system a better model of human disease, a culture of human neurons will be connected to the robot once the current work with rat cells is completed. This will be the first instance of human cells being used to control a robot.

One aim is to investigate any differences in the behaviour of robots controlled by rat and human neurons. “We’ll be trying to find out if the learning aspects and memory appear to be similar,” says Warwick.

And in case you were wondering about the potential ethical minefield involved with doing research on human tissue cultures… well, apparently it’s just not an issue in this case:

Warwick and colleagues can proceed as soon as they are ready, as they won’t need specific ethical approval to use a human neuron cell line. That’s because the cultures are available to buy and “the ethical side of sourcing is done by the company from whom they are purchased”, Whalley says.

I’m not sure which is more of a science-fictional kick to the mind – the fact that there’ll soon be a robot powered by human brain cells, or the fact that ethically-sourced human brain cells can just be mail-ordered like any other lab supply. [image by Khazaei]

Swarming to it

iswarm4One of my favourite[1] plausible science fictional tropes is that of tiny robotic insects. The latest step towards their instantiation has been taken by researchers in Sweden, Spain, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland as they put forward their conception of how swarms of mass-produced robotic fleas could be used for surveillance, cleaning, and medical applications:

The technique involves integrating an entire robot – with communication, locomotion, energy storage, and electronics – in different modules on a single circuit board.

In the past, the single-chip robot concept has presented significant limitations in design and manufacturing. However, instead of using solder to mount electrical components on a printed circuit board as in the conventional method, the researchers use conductive adhesive to attach the components to a double-sided flexible printed circuit board using surface mount technology.

The circuit board is then folded to create a three-dimensional robot.

I can imagine that once this sort of technology matures it will herald a profound change for society. An Orwellian Panopticon where everyone and everything is traced and followed and tracked will become a practicable possibility. Privacy will become one of the most valuable commodities on the planet, with the richest and most powerful people cowering in enclaves sterilized against micro-invaders.

[1]: In that I enjoy them as part of a story and am not entirely ambivalent to their actuality.

[from Physorg][image from Physorg]

The ethics of autonomous devices

heart_surgeonThe Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK says that the imminent rise of autonomous and semi-autonomous cars, robotic surgeons, planes, war machines, software agents, and public transport systems raises important ethical and legal questions:

Professor Stewart and report co-author Chris Elliott remain convinced that autonomous systems will prove, on average, to be better surgeons and better lorry drivers than humans are.

But when they are not, it could lead to a legal morass, they said.

“If a robot surgeon is actually better than a human one, most times you’re going to be better off with a robot surgeon,” Dr Elliott said. “But occasionally it might do something that a human being would never be so stupid as to do.”

Professor Stewart concluded: “It is fundamentally a big issue that we think the public ought to think through before we start trying to imprison a truck.”

And when and if true AI or artificial general human-level intelligences show up, will they commit crimes, and if so, who will be responsible?

[from the BBC][image from Wonderlane on flickr]

Smallest ever free-flying device

smallest-uavThe world’s smallest free-flying device has successfully flown. The DARPA-commissioned nano-air-vehicle flew TK without external support:

Aeronvironment has released a video that shows its “nano air vehicle” (NAV), which is the size of a small bird or large insect, hovering indoors without such crutches and under radio control. “It is capable of climbing and descending vertically, flying sideways left and right, as well as forward and backward, under remote control,” says the company….
Their ultimate ask is a ten-gram aircraft with a 7.5cm wingspan, which can carry a camera and explore caves and other potential hiding places. “It will need to fly at 10 metres per second and withstand 2.5-metre-per-second gusts of wind”

The micro-ornithopter/robot-insect concept has plenty of precedants in science fiction, and is another example of engineers borrowing from nature to solve engineering problems.

[from New Scientist, via Wired UK][image from ubergizmo]

Universal robot operating system: well, they’re too late to call it Android

robotAs evidenced by the number of posts we end up doing about them, robots are a real growth industry. Which is all well and good, but the folks in R&D departments everywhere have a problem.

In a nutshell, it’s interoperability: each robot is developed in isolation, meaning valuable resources are expended replicating functionalities that others have already nailed down. What they need is a common and standardised robot operating system.

This sorry state of affairs is set to change. Roboticists have begun to think about what robots have in common and what aspects of their construction can be standardised, hopefully resulting in a basic operating system everyone can use. This would let roboticists focus their attention on taking the technology forward.


On top of all this, each robot has its own unique hardware and software, so capabilities like balance implemented on one robot cannot easily be transferred to others.

Bourcier sees this changing if robotics advances in a manner similar to personal computing. For computers, the widespread adoption of Microsoft’s Disk Operating System (DOS), and later Windows, allowed programmers without detailed knowledge of the underlying hardware and file systems to build new applications and build on the work of others.

Programmers could build new applications without detailed knowledge of the underlying hardware

Bringing robotics to this point won’t be easy, though. “Robotics is at the stage where personal computing was about 30 years ago,” says Chad Jenkins of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Like the home-brew computers of the late 70s and early 80s, robots used for research today often have a unique operating system (OS). “But at some point we have to come together to use the same resources,” says Jenkins.

And there’s already an open-source type system being developed… as well as a Microsoft alternative, for those who fancy paying a license fee for robots that are vulnerable to trojans and spyware, one assumes.

If we’re to extend the analogy of the current robotics industry being like the computer industry of the early eighties, I wonder if we can expect generic clone hardware to start appearing in response to a demand from maker-businesses and hobbyists? [via PlausibleFutures; image by woordenaar]