Technology grows in leaps and bounds, each discovery ushering in the next one ever faster, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in robotics. With computers getting more and more sophisticated, energy-efficient, and smaller, and with computer programmers only getting smarter, robots will be a cornerstone of any future society.
But as robots become the norm, they become adopted for more and more unusual tasks, and likewise take on stranger or far more dynamic shapes. Here are five of the coolest (and weirdest) robots that you've probably never heard about!
1. Humanoid medical robots
I thought I'd get the ball rolling with the capital of weird robots, Japan and their swine flu robot.Yes, you read that correctly.
This humanoid robot sweats, cries, even dies, all in the name of medical science. This selfless automaton lives a life of constant misery as it does nothing but simulate, with extreme realism, the symptoms of the H1N1 virus, colloquially known as "swine flu" to help doctors better diagnose and treat the disease.
But the poor swine flu robot has it easy compared to Japanese dental aficionado Simroid, who spends her entire life getting worked on by first year dental students. Simroid is capable of following verbal instructions, and makes realistic facial expressions when the dental stu,dents slip up and cause pain.
2. Robots that cut you open
Hopefully you haven't had to meet da Vinci yet, but when you finally do, you'll be glad he's around. The oldest technology on this list, approved by the FDA in 2000 for use in hospitals, da Vinci is not a "traditional robot" in the sense that it is still user- controlled, like a predator drone.
This robot, controlled remotely by a surgeon, performs surgery with a set of arms carrying a vicious array of surgical tools that is vaguely reminscient of the surgery pod in Prometheus. (Perhaps da Vinci partly inspired Ridley Scott to include it!) The primary benefit of the robot is its minimization of motion. The doctor moves his hand a centimeter, the knife moves a millimeter, or less! This allows for much more delicate and complex surgeries to be performed.
Use of the machine is widespread. In 2012, Da Vinci systems conducted approximately 200,000 surgeries in U.S. hospitals. The future of da Vinci is uncertain, but adding a decision making AI to the system for routine procedures is not out of the question, and is currently being explored. As AI technology develops, allowing for better decision-making algorithms, da Vinci or machines like it will make automated surgery a reality!
3. Tiny death machines
The U.S. Air Force revealed in a piece running in the March 2013 issue of National Geographic that there is an on-going drone research program at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio that focuses on the development of MAVs, or Micro Air Vehicles.
These drones, roughly the size of insects, will use recent developments in swarm technology, a concept of a team of independent robots often with different individual functions coordinating and working towards a common goal together. The idea is that these swarms of insect-like robots will fly around a battlefield providing everything from communications and surveillance, to quiet, unexpected death. The Air Force is still years away from introducing these drones into theatre, but they are expected to carry arsenals as diverse as poison stingers and explosive charges.
A limiting factor of these drones are power supply. The AF is solving this by stealing power from local power lines and other sources of electricity and magnetism. Think that's a bird perched up on that power line looking around? Think again!
4. Robots to school you in rock, paper, scissors
Naturally had to save the best for last. This robot has only one purpose — to beat you at rock, paper, scissors ("Janken" in Japan) — and it is really, really, good at it.
The Janken Robot has a 100% winning rate, which is achieved not by being smarter or by being psychic, but by being faster. The robot sees your hand movements faster than you probably realize you are making them and then promptly cuts your paper, or smashes your scissors.
5. Robots to try on clothes for you
This last entry is bittersweet. In 2010, an Estonian engineer came out with the Fits.me robot. This robot is a mannequin that morphs to the shape of almost any body type based on user-inputted measurements, which is then used to try on clothing via the internet. Various online platforms have developed to support the system.
Now for a shameless plug: a friend and I hold a pending patent for a robot of our own that performs a similar function. For business reasons, I can't tell you much about it, but our robot is designed to extrapolate measurements via existing cellphone technology, and can morph to any body shape (as opposed to preprogrammed ones like fits.me) with much greater accuracy and precision.
But we aren't the only two players in the new and developing industry of "virtual fitting rooms." On the non-robot side of the industry, progress is being made by not only our company with cell phone cameras, but also by a variety of other upstarts, some better funded than others, making use of Microsoft's Kinect technology, which was hacked two years ago and its software put up on the internet for all to experiment with. Obviously, these companies need Microsoft's permission to avoid getting sued, but that hasn't stopped hobbyists from experimenting with generating 3-D computer models from using the Kinect to scan physical objects, and Microsoft has proven to be open to the idea of applying Kinect to this specific purpose.
Already, robots manufacture our products, clean our homes, diffuse explosives, and get us beer from the fridge. They have become so commonplace, that they have even been simplified to the level of sixth grade science projects. If history has taught us anything, its that technology refines itself, and often solves problems we never even knew we had.
As awesome and crazy as some of these robots are, they will pale in comparison to the unique and strange robots we'll undoubtedly see in the next few years.