Rise of the robots: where are the cyborg servants we were promised?

They may be out of sight, but they’re taking over the world – you just don’t know it yet

It's 2015. Where are the robots that our diet of 1980s sci–fi flicks promised us?

There are no T-1000s waging war against hemmed-in human armies. No C-3PO or R2-D2 with pithy one–liners or degree–level mechanical skills. Scour the Web's tech news and you could be forgiven for thinking that robots are no more than fancy toys for gadget fans. Have we all been sold a future that'll never exist?

“I think we're going to see a lot more robots in our lives,” says Sangbae Kim, Associate Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Department of Mechanical Engineering. “But they won't be like the things we see in movies or sci–fi novels. They'll be more like sophisticated tools than another species. At the moment, robot intelligence is very well developed for simple tasks but not complex ones.”

Kim should know. MIT is unrivalled when it comes to robotics, its students, staff and alumni playing a leading role in the development of futuristic tools for the home, battlefield and operating theatre. Specifically, Kim is part of the MIT Biomimetics Lab, which recently revealed the latest, v.2, version of its Cheetah robot. In development since 2009, it can autonomously jump over objects 40cm high. This is thanks to a Lidar sensor that enables it to take on board reflections from lasers to assess the ground in front of it. It does this at an average speed of 5mph. Other robots can sprint faster, but not while clearing hurdles unassisted.

The possibilities are fascinating. “The first application will be with first responders,” predicts Kim. “If it's too dangerous to send humans, you can send a robot first to identify the situation. The military would probably use them for the same thing.”

And it's the military that's the driving force here. The Cheetah is funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), part of the US Department of Defense. DARPA is also pouring money into Boston Dynamics, the Google–owned company that's developing its own Cheetah, as well as Big Dog. The latest version of the latter, named Spot, is an electrically powered, four-legged robot that's capable of scaling hills, and Boston Dynamics has even shown it taking a kicking from amused staff. But this is no case of robot cruelty – Spot's ability to withstand blows could come into play on the battlefield or in disaster zones.

At DARPA's Robotics Challenge, held in California in June, 22 robots went head to head over an obstacle course designed to simulate the Fukushima nuclear-plant disaster of 2011. While the Cheetah didn't take first prize, another Korean creation, DRC-Hubo, did. This humanoid–style robot, which can see in 3D and has arms that can lift, turn and twist, is perhaps more akin to what you'd imagine a robot to be like but, like the Cheetah, shows just what military–funded robots are made for. Rather than a Skynet–style force, we're looking at a future where such AI–powered robots assess situations that are impractical for humans to attempt without injury or loss of life.

Changing human behaviour

Closer to home, robots are also set to play a greater role in our everyday lives. MIT alumnus Cynthia Breazeal is the creator of Jibo, a so–called 'social robot' that made news last year after it smashed its crowd–funding target on Indiegogo and raised a further $25.3million to recruit an executive team. It can do everything from performing Web searches to delivering reminders, taking photos to acting as an education tool for kids. And, importantly, it can learn to interact with individual users.

Breazeal believes it is these social robots that are about to leap into the mainstream and potentially change human behaviour. “A personalised robot cooking coach is very different to an online recipe book with videos,” she says. “A personalised robot tutor is very different to watching an online lecture. A robot health coach is very different to a calorie-counting app. Having a warm, welcoming way to interact with your connected home is different to controlling it with your phone or tablet.”

That's not to say Jibo doesn't take some of those products' facets. It has a developer ecosystem, which Breazeal says has received many applications from creatives looking to bring new ways of learning and interaction to consumers. And with a slated release date of May 2016, it's closer to being an everyday reality than DARPA's military robots. Breazeal claims that every home with a high–speed internet connection will have a Jibo within five years.

Ethical questions

While robots such as MIT's Cheetah are about replacing humans to facilitate dangerous tasks, Jibo is what Breazeal terms a “co–bot” (collaborative robot). “It's not about replacing people,” she explains. “It's about robots that augment humans in order to be an amplifier. In social robotics, it's happening where you look at the need to provide quality education to all ages, but especially to younger people.”

The educational angle is intriguing. Breazeal foresees a time in the next five to ten years when Jibo will help with homework and offer companionship rather than acting as a one–way tool in the way that tablets and phones do.

Similar creations are emerging in Asia. Musio is a Korea–based tool, also being funded by the crowd, that has the ability to learn habits and moods over time, much in the same way that the likes of Apple's Siri and Google Now already do on smartphones. However, this so–called 'smart friend' will look
to play a more interactive role in the home, again with education at its heart. Musio's creator, AKA, says it's been designed to help Asian people brush up on their English-language skills, too.

Even if you don't snap up a robot in the next few years, there's still every chance that you or someone in your life could be affected by one. Medical robots are perhaps the most vital aspect of robotic development. Unlike robots created at MIT or by those looking to facilitate a social- robotics revolution, automation and artificial intelligence are not the name of the game here. This is all about making surgical procedures more precise, and aiding recovery times.

“Medical robots are not designed to be autonomous, for all kinds of safety and liability reasons,” says Sanja Dogramadzi, Reader in Robotics at the University of the West of England. Dogramadzi has co–designed a modular robotic system for fixing complex fractures. She says that robots can be
a catalyst for speedier recovery, and transform the quality of life for patients suffering from serious injuries.

However, her modular system is still in testing, and medical robots remain shrouded in ethical questions. Should automated robots be allowed to operate? What happens if something goes wrong? Dogramadzi says there are pros and cons to the concept: “The pros are that we could potentially enjoy better and faster treatments, reduced waiting lists and cheaper service in the long run. Cons include deskilling surgeons to the point that they can't operate without the technology; the robots could be too expensive for developing countries, and the tech would require a new generation of specialists for maintenance.”

It's an exciting area of development, and one that's already yielding results. Da Vinci surgical robots have helped perform more than two million procedures since 2000, largely prostate and hysterectomy operations. In decades to come, self–folding origami robots that can swim and self–destruct could carry out procedures within the human body. They're already in development.

However, this will require a major debate about where to draw the line and who assumes responsibility for patient wellbeing. In the meantime, expect to see home and military–funded robots boom. Just don't go thinking you'll have C-3PO to do your bidding come 2025.