On December 12, 2003, in Devices & Robotics
If the outsourcing trend doesn’t get the radiologists (see the Policy &
Practice section), the robots will. The US may lag Europe and Japan in automating service jobs, but that lag
will disappear once the competitive economics of globalization start to bite.
Where are all the service workers to go?

Other robotics developments this month:

  • A life-size, doll-like robotic
    able to bow and show facial expressions and body gestures using
    her artificial muscles will make her market debut in 2004.
  • The Segway self-balancing scooter, struggling as a human transporter, has a
    new lease on life as a robot
    , while the Japanese work on a people transporter — a robotic walking chair to transport
    goods and the disabled up and down steps and over uneven ground.
  • Paro, the robotic, stuffed, cuddly
    baby seal undergoing tests as a pet therapist may soon be tested in children’s
    hospitals in the US.
Humans? Who Needs Them?

We get our airplane boarding pass from a machine. We pay the pump for our
gasoline. We scan our own groceries at the supermarket. We bank at a machine. We
are growing to prefer their speed, and their absence of attitude, to the human
alternative. Eager to save money on labor costs, businesses are happy to oblige,
and are stepping up the pace of automation at the business-consumer interface.
“Nearly 13,000 self-checkout systems will have been installed in American retail
stores like Kroger and Home Depot by the end of this year, more than double the
number in 2001, according to the market research concern IDC. Delta Airlines
spent millions of dollars this year to line 81 airports with kiosks; 22 million
of its 55 million passengers — 40 per cent of the total — checked in by touch
screen this year, up from 350,000 in 2001,” reports Amy Harmon.

On the other hand, McDonald’s has apparently pulled the plug on four trial
Redbox automated convenience stores in the Washington DC area, though it is
keeping 12 automated video rental booths. Redbox — one of Time
magazine’s “Best New Inventions of 2002” — is thought to have suffered from
technological problems, American consumer wariness, and low profit margins. The
kiosks stocked a wide range of groceries, including fresh foods, available via a
touch-sensitive screen. Continental Europe and Japan have had a much different
experience. The Belgian company that helped install the Redboxes for McDonalds
has installed 160 fully-automated shops in Europe — for clients other than
McDonald’s — and has plans for another 400, reports the BBC.

It seems clear to us that automation of the business-consumer interface will
accelerate in all spheres, despite occasional hangups, and the US will not
continue to lag Europe and Japan once the competitive economics of globalization
start to bite. The question no-one seems to be asking is: Where are all the
service workers — who are the business-consumer interface — going to
go? Maybe we are all too frightened to ask.

Reference: Harmon, Amy (2003). “The
Automatic Age: Who needs humans? Robots better
.” New York Times Service/The
Asian Age, November 19.

Reference: Unknown (2003). “McDonald’s axes robot
.” BBC News, November 12.

Realistic Humanoid Female

At this year’s International Robotics Exhibition in Tokyo, a Japanese company
exhibited a life-sized, doll-like robotic mannequin able to bow and show facial
expressions and body gestures using her artificial muscles. “Actroid,” as she is
known, is 1.58m tall, weighs 30kg, and will be on the market in 2004.

How long will it be before Actroid is turned into a sex object? We do not
wish to be prurient, but it is impossible — and probably unwise — to ignore
sex and its effects in driving both innovation and ethics.

Reference: AFP (2003). “Seiko
Epson unveils flying micro-robot, advanced humanoid at Tokyo exhibition
Taipei Times, November 20, p. 10.

Segway Segues Into Robot

MIT researchers have assembled a robot out of a robotic arm and a Segway
self-balancing scooter. It can move around a building and open doors with its
arm. Eventually, it will have three arms and be able safely to interact with
humans at eye level. The Segway’s dynamic balancing capability avoids the need
for a much wider base.

Besides the Segway base, the robot has sonar sensors, binocular camera
vision, and the arm, which has five degrees of freedom — two at the shoulder,
one at the elbow, and two at the wrist. The project is one of a dozen initiated
by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that involve building
robots on Segway bases, says Technology Research News.

Reference: Unknown (2003). “Segway Robot
Opens Doors
.” Technology Research News, November 11.


Researchers at Waseda University and Japanese robotics company tmsuk (known
for its dragon
) have built a prototype bipedal robot designed to carry a human or
other heavy goods weighing up to 60 kilograms (130 pounds) up and down stairs
and over uneven terrain. The battery-powered “WL-16” is essentially a wheelchair
with telescoping legs where the wheels ought to be. Actuators move the legs
forwards, backwards, and sideways while carrying an adult. The robot balances
dynamically if the person/load shifts in the chair. For now, the prototype can
only step up or down a few millimeters. WL-16’s normal walking stride measures
30 centimeters, but it can stretch to 136 cm. It will take “at least two years”
to develop the prototype into a fully working model.

Legged robots will almost certainly be better than wheeled or tracked robots
at moving over uneven ground.

Reference: Biever, Celeste (2003). “Walking robot
carries a person
.” New Scientist, November 21.

Therapeutic Robot Seal

Paro, the robotic, stuffed, cuddly baby seal developed by Japan’s
National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology won a PC
“Best of Comdex” awards at the 2003 computing convention.
Paro is being tested for its “pet therapy” effects in Japanese and
Swedish nursing homes, and with autistic and handicapped children. Tactile
sensors beneath its fur and whiskers trigger Paro to move and respond to
petting. Its eyes open and close, and its flippers move. Paro may soon be
tested in children’s hospitals in the US. It is expected to cost between
US$2,500 and $3,000.

Reference: Walton, Marsha (2003). “Meet
Paro, the therapeutic robot seal
.” CNN, November 20.

See alsoRobotherapet
” in the February issue.


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