I’m currently teaching a research seminar on robots and artificial intelligence, and I recently posed a question to my students. Say you have an 85-year-old grandmother who lives in a nursing home. She lives a couple hours away, so neither you nor your family can visit her as much as you’d like. One day, someone from the home calls you and says they’ve just received a couple of robots—androids like the ones in the video below. Would you like one of them to visit your grandmother a couple times a week? The responses ranged from “Sure, why not?” to “absolutely not.” After our discussion, I said something about how it might seem like a silly scenario, but that it’s entirely possible that their grandmas will interact with robots. What I didn’t think about during that conversation is that it’s even more likely they’ll spend time with their grandmas via a robot.
Rethink Robotics, founded by former MIT faculty and CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) director Rodney Brooks, who also invented the Roomba, has developed a robot named Baxter designed to perform various manufacturing duties. Baxter, the first two-armed robot designed for such tasks, may be in the process of revolutionizing the way humans use robots in manufacturing, largely because Rethink Robotics doesn’t intend for Baxter to replace human workers.
Baxter went on the market a year ago and costs $25,000 a pop. That might sound like a lot, but some of the tasks he performs require a number of human employees, and some of those tasks are pretty awful — they involve enough dust and dirt that human workers would have to wear masks, and the jobs are also pretty darn boring. Baxter also can work for long stretches — I’m talking 2,000 hours straight, which is about three months of labor. That’s definitely cheaper than hiring humans to do the same amount of work, which is a plus for the companies that invest in Baxter, though not necessarily for the workers, no matter how dirty and dull the work might be.
It’s been over a month since we last checked in with DARPA, which means it must be time for an update — those robotics designers at DARPA don’t stay still for long. And it turns out they’ve been working on a particularly cool project: Transformers.
DARPA’s actually been working on the Transformer (TX) program for a few years now, and last year they decided to develop the concept for ARES (Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded System). The system was developed in response to a common problem that arises during war: soldiers being stranded in remote and dangerous areas. In the movies, we always see helicopters swoop to the rescue, but there aren’t enough helicopters to go around. But what if there was a machine that was part helicopter, part drone, part transport, and part cargo supplier?
Exosuits are big in sci-fi right now. For all of the movie’s flaws, the metal frame that Matt Damon has bolted into his skeleton in Elysium is totally badass. And sure, the one Tom Cruise wears in the upcoming Edge of Tomorrow is clunky, bulky, and comical looking when he runs, but it makes up for any inherent silliness with ample, alien-fighting firepower. Activelink, a subsidiary of Panasonic, is working on an exoskeleton called the Power Loader that is definitely more science and less fiction.
This device amplifies human strength and will come in handy when you have to do things like move heavy loads, or in clear rubble in the case of an emergencys. Or, you know, in the event that you have to strap in and fight off an armor-plated alien-queen killing machine. This looks and functions almost exactly like the power loader that Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) uses to beat back the big bitch xenomorph in James Cameron’s 1986 film Aliens. It’s even just named the Power Loader, for crying out load. They must have taken one look at this, realized exactly what it is they built, and said, what the hell, why call it anything else?
Even though many of us are already pumped for CBS’ upcoming sci-fi thriller Extant, we don’t know all that much about what the show. Sure, Steven Spielberg is producing and Halle Berry is the star—those facts alone are enough to capture a wealth of attention—but beyond that we only have a vague, bare bones description of what the plot will look like when the series premieres July 2. There’s been another name added to the even expanding cast list, and a fact that’s been known for a while, but flown under the radar—that Halle Berry has a robot son—is getting more play.
Last week TV veterans Goran Visnjic and Michael O’Neil joined Extant, and now TV Line reports that Grace Gummer has signed on to join the party as well. Gummer may be known as Meryl Streep’s daughter, but is an accomplished actor in her own right, having appeared in the likes of last year’s indie hit Frances Ha, The Newsroom, and American Horror Story, among others.
Secret stealth drones, French and Norwegian drones, spotlight-stealing German drones, Amazon delivery drones — the list goes on and on. Drones are in the spotlight more than Justin Bieber these days, and with them, concerns about privacy and safety. The safety concern was underscored Monday, when an American drone patrolling the Mexican border crashed near the southern California coast, about 20 miles from San Diego.
The United States Customs and Border Protection (CBP) service has a fleet of 10 drones that patrol the Mexican border looking for people smuggling drugs and illegal immigrants. This particular $12 million Predator B surveillance drone has a special kind of radar system for use over the ocean — there’s only one other like it in the fleet. The drone started experiencing mechanical problems and a crew in Arizona operating it made the decision to crash it into the Pacific because they couldn’t return it to its point of origin in Sierra Vista, Arizona. Later reports indicated that the drone was on a routine patrol mission when its generator failed, and that the back-up battery didn’t have enough charge to fly the drone back to a landing pad. Upon hitting the Pacific, the drone broke into pieces, and the CBP has surrounded the area to troll for recoverable parts. The origin of the generator failure is thus far unknown, or at least hasn’t been released, but the rest of the fleet has been grounded during the investigation.