Robot tweets from space

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C-3PO may have been fantastical when George Lucas created Star Wars in the 1970s, but now, we have our own humanoid robot designed to work in space - and it even has a Twitter account.Robonaut 2, a robot developed by NASA to provide practical help on space missions, will arrive at the International Space Station in November. It will carry out maintenance tasks that will leave astronauts free to focus on more complex tasks. It will be controlled both by station crew members and by personnel on the ground where necessary, but it is designed to be semi-autonomous.
 
A humanoid robot capable of carrying out tasks under its own steam would have been inconceivable just ten years ago, but technology is developing so quickly that robotics is on the cusp of being incorporated into everyday life. iRobot, for example, started out developing robots designed to be used on the battlefield, but has since expanded into robots for the home. The Roomba family of robots will happily scurry around cleaning your floors. Evolution Robotics is launching Mint, a rival robot that does the same thing, while Precise Path makes robots that mow golf courses. These may seem like relatively mundane tasks today, but the likes of Robonaut 2 show where things are headed tomorrow.
 
Perhaps more interesting, though, are developments in the human computer interface (HCI) between robots and humans. At Canada's University of Toronto, work is being conducted onhuman robots that might one day interact with the elderly in long-term care facilities, perhaps even reminding dementia sufferers to keep up with daily tasks such as brushing their teeth. That robot will use recognition software to analyse a person's mood by picking up on cues such as vocal tones.
 
Other robots are also being groomed to pick up on human emotion. Nao, an automaton developed by scientists at the University of Hertfordshire, has been designed to learn from them. When treated with kindness, Nao will form social bonds with people, according to its 'parents', who say that it could be used as a 24 hour companion for hospitalised children. The robot will use video cameras to detect how close a person is, and also has tactile sensors, enabling it to respond when it is patted on the head.
 
Robotics researchers toying with the idea of emotions and robot interaction have nevertheless noticed the same thing that games developers have: the uncanny valley Just as with characters in computer games, if you try to make your robots too lifelike, the people looking at them become uncomfortable. Keeping a certain amount of artificiality - an exposed cable here, or a metallic limb there - is desirable to maintain the distance between us and our robotic friends.
 
That's the strange paradox of robotics. On the one hand, we'd like them to be as human as possible in terms of their motor skills and dexterity, because it means that they can take over more of the tasks that we find tiresome. We'd also like them to be able to be like us in the sense that they understand us, and react to us. But we don't want them to be too like us. Apparently, some things are still sacred.

 

Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.