The Surprising Range of Robots

I’ve been invited to join a panel on robotics at the upcoming Orycon Science Fiction Convention, so I decided to write about them here, too.  I also have a story coming out soon in Analog, called “The Robots’ Girl,” which started when I read an article complaining about robots being developed to help with childcare in Japan.

We were promised undersea cities and jet packs and household robots.  The robots are here, and the next decade is pretty clearly a breakout time for them.

When we think about the future we have images.  For example, cars flying through the sky or automated roads.  For many of us, our images of robots are formed by the early television images we saw of silver robots that looked like people, spoke English, and did the menial chores.  I may do a column on consumer bots in the future, but for now, I decided to provide some new images of our possible futures by focusing on more unique designs…

Let’s start out with two robots designed based on non-human living beings.  And no, I don’t mean the Aibo. I’ll start with the Stanford Stickybot robot gecko.  This critter uses a dry adhesive on its feet to climb walls, and while it isn’t free-roaming yet, there may come a time when you look above you and spot a robot iguana or gecko that looks so real you wonder if it’s taking video of you. Next, we’ve got robo-fish.  While still creatures of the lab, these fish are being designed by MIT in hopes that they can monitor underwater pipelines and pollution.  You may also see robo-carp released in the Spanish Sea sooner than the MIT version is out and about.  These fish are also designed to hunt pollution.  The videos of all three robo-animals are worth watching to see how much they look like the real thing.

The bio-mimicry robots mentioned above are all big enough to spot easily from a distance.  Another area of innovation in robotics is the tiny swarm-bot.   One version of the swarm-bot idea is that you put a lot of small bits that have autonomous motion together and let them gather and assemble into various forms.  Yes, they remind me of the “transformers” kid TV show my son watched when he was twenty years younger than he is now.  You really have to see this to get it – so consider dropping by a YouTube video on the topic that’s already had over a million viewers. Another way to look at swarms is as many tiny bots doing a single job together, even if they keep some distance.  Kind of like a net of robots you can throw across the ocean.  That’s exactly what some bots being designed to troll the ocean for oil spills may do.

Swarm-bots can change shapes.  But there is more than one way to change shape.  Imagine a robot that can squeeze through a small hole and grow on the other side.  The already-successful iRobot is doing some work on flexible-skinned robots made, essentially, of smart gel.  This creates a robot about as far away from our typical vision of metal men as you can get.  I hate to do this to you, but once more, its best seen on the YouTube video about the flexible jamming robot.

My prediction?

Most of the bots I’ve shared with you today are still in the lab, but I paid careful attention to finding experiments that are pretty close to ready for real life.  We’ll see these bots, or many just like them, beginning to do real work in the world soon.  In many cases, they’ll be doing things we never could, and thus extending our reach.  I’m particularly excited that a lot of these bots are being designed to help us explore and monitor the ocean.

Clever robot design is beginning to leave the well-funded lab and sneak into the basements and garages of tinkerers.  So I think that across the next ten or twenty years we’ll see more than iRobot doing interesting things.  There is, after all, already a place to get robot parts on line.  The venture capital bubble for robotics is probably coming along in the next decade, and that often precedes real change in an industry.

Science Fiction and Robots

This is a little like last month’s article on space flight.  Robots are so integrated into our tropes that I really don’t have a breakthrough story or book to share; almost everything we write has robots as background.  The most famous, of course, was Isaac Asimov’s series about positronic robots, where the three rules of robotics were born.  Phillip K. Dick wrote about robots doing child care long before I did, and while I couldn’t find the whole story, there is a great reference to both P.K. Dick’s story and the very childcare robots I read about in an article on the LiveScience site.

Robots are great on-screen characters.  I suspect most of the world recognizes C3PO and R2-D2.  I grew up watching Robby the Robot in the movie Forbidden Planet, and of course the Transformers movies are stomping awkwardly across the big screens these days.

If you want to do more research:

Thanks for stopping by and reading Today’s Tomorrows. Paul Graham Raven has invited me to keep doing this column for a bit, so I hope to hear some topics you’re interested in.  What do you think of these robots, and what else might you like to see me explore here?


Brenda Cooper’s next science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, will be out from Tor Books in November 2009. For more information, see her website!