Earlier this month, Toyota unveiled the latest in its line of "partner robots": the aptly named Violin-playing Robot, which can hold the string instrument in place with its left hand and move the bow with its right hand to produce music. The roughly 5-foot, 123 lb. (1.5-meter, 56 kg) humanoid joins walking and rolling robots the company introduced in 2004, which are capable of playing the trumpet. Toyota rival Honda also this month introduced advancements to its humanoid, ASIMO (first introduced in 2005) , that allow it to perform tasks such as carrying a tray and pushing a cart while simultaneously employing an eye camera to detect the speed and direction of humans and other ASIMOs to avoid collisions. The new ASIMO also knows when its battery levels are low and will automatically return to its base to recharge.
When not serving tea, robots aided scientists in understanding insect behavior. Researchers at the Free University of Brussels (U.L.B.) in Belgium, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (E.P.F.L.) in Switzerland and the University of Rennes in France, along with other European educational institutions, reported in Science that they successfully introduced a few autonomous robots (boxy in design, but made to smell like the real deal) into cockroach communities. The robots were able to alter the collective decision-making process of the group and trigger new behavior patterns in the bugs. The findings show that it may be possible to use robots to study and control how groups of animals from insects to vertebrates interact.
And further proving there is no limit to what robotic technology can accomplish, a Web video recently surfaced featuring a mechanical device that can not only open a beer bottle but can follow that feat with a proper pour. (Note how the cup is held at an angle; many humans have yet to master this technique.)
This sampling merely scratches the surface of the past year's advances in robotics that whet the appetite for what's to come: Early next year, for instance, researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder will benchmark robotic devices to precisely mix and measure medications used in treatments such as chemotherapy. The robotic Mars rovers Opportunity and Spirit are currently hunkering down in anticipation of the harsh Martian winter season but will soon resume their exploration of the Red Planet. And Scandanavian research firm Sintef is developing artificially intelligent equipment to help offshore oil and gas drilling platforms run more safely and efficiently.
In all, 2008 promises continued progress in the area of artificial intelligence, although it will still be a while before humankind reaches the point where it cannot live without the robots it has created.