METAL MAESTRO: Toyota's 4.9-foot (1.5-meter), 123.5-pound (56-kilogram) Violin-playing Robot holds its violin in place with its left hand and moves the bow with its right hand to produce music. Image: Courtesy of Toyota Motor Corp.
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.
The U.S. Department of Defense continued its quest to develop autonomous robotic technology that will eventually take the place of human soldiers in battle. In November, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) hosted its 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge, a competition that tested the driving prowess of experimental driverless autos. "Boss," an SUV put together by a team including gearheads from Carnegie Mellon University, General Motors Corporation, Caterpillar and Continental AG drove away with the $2 million grand prize. (The second- and third-place finishers were, respectively, built by groups at Stanford University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.) Boss maintained an average speed of 14 miles per hour throughout the 55-mile course at the former George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif., which was built to resemble an urban layout. The autonomous vehicles demonstrated their abilities by changing lanes, merging onto roadways amidst fast-moving traffic and traversing busy intersections—using only sensors, global positioning systems and computers.
During the tragedy at Utah's Crandall Canyon mine in August, when six miners and three rescuers perished in a mine collapse and subsequent rescue attempt, rescuers learned valuable lessons about the capabilities and limitations of robotic equipment. A robot crawler was sent 1,500 feet (457 meters) through a borehole into the mine, located about 120 miles (193 kilometers) south of Salt Lake City, after it crumbled due to a cave-in so powerful that it registered a magnitude of 3.9 on the Richter scale. Workers, handicapped by time constraints and the continued shifting of the mountain's mass, managed to get the crawler to the mine's floor but were bogged down by debris and unable retrieve the device, which remains trapped 52 feet (16 meters) below the mountain's surface.
Other robots helped us learn about ourselves. In November, University of California, San Diego, researchers reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA that "current robot technology is surprisingly close to achieving autonomous bonding and socialization with human toddlers for significant periods of time." QRIO, another two-foot- (61-centimeter-) humanoid was placed in UC San Diego's Early Childhood Education Center and programmed to wave, dance, sit and stand, among other functions. Children aged 18 to 24 months quickly warmed to the machine and began to treat it more like a peer than an object.