The Year in Robots

Larry Greenemeier in Scientific American:Robot

Last week’s announcement of Japan’s “Robot of the Year” for 2007—a mechanical arm capable of grabbing 120 items-per-minute from a conveyor belt—marked an anticlimactic end to what has otherwise been a good year in the advancement of artificial intelligence.

The three Fanuc Ltd. assembly-line mechanical arms—which beat out competitors such as Fujitsu’s 24-inch-tall (61-centimeter) dancing humanoid HOAP and Komatsu Ltd.’s tank-shaped, fire-extinguishing robot—won for their practicality; they are optimized to work efficiently and accurately on food and pharmaceutical manufacturing lines.

Still, 2007 offered plenty of other significant, if less heralded (and immediately useful), developments and pushed robotic technology to new levels, or at least promised to in the near future.

As part of NASA’s plans to send peopled missions back to the moon (and then on to Mars), the space agency, in September, performed a series of tests to determine if robotic technology could be used to provide medical care for astronauts during extended spaceflights. On board a military C-9 aircraft flying in parabolic arcs over the Gulf of Mexico, four surgeons and four astronauts performed simulated surgery both by hand and using a robotic device developed by SRI International to determine if the robot’s software can compensate for errors in movement caused by turbulence and varying gravitational conditions.