Stories tagged the future

Apr
12
2008

Your future bath assistant: Not yet waterproof, but adequately creepy. Those eyes...
Your future bath assistant: Not yet waterproof, but adequately creepy. Those eyes...Courtesy JanneM
Yes! You were totally right! It’s Japan!

JGordon, “betting on robots” is more than a little bit vague. What exactly do you mean?

Good question, Guy. What I’m getting at is this: Japan’s population is shrinking. Birthrates are much too low to sustain current population levels, and, just like our baby boomer generation, a huge chunk of the population is racing toward old age. By 2030, it’s thought that the size of the Japanese workforce will shrink by 16 percent, leaving the country with a couple of problems to consider: who will replace all those workers, and who is going to help take acre of all those old folks? It’s the sort of situation often alleviated by a foreign workforce, but Japan is unused to, and generally unwilling to accept, large-scale immigration. So what’s the solution?

Robots, obviously.

The oddly-named think tank, Machine Industry Memorial Foundation (maybe something was lost in translation), has proposed that robots be used to help make up for the declining workforce. From vacuumbots to robo nannies, robots could be filling the jobs of 3.5 million people by 2025. That doesn’t necessarily mean the robot population of Japan will increase by that number—we all know that one robot can do the work of several humans.

MIMF also points out that a robot workforce could also make it so that older people no longer “have to rely on human nursing care,” saving the government 21 billion dollars in elderly insurance payments. Robots could do housework, read aloud, and “help bathe the elderly.” We all know how much people hate human contact, especially the elderly, so I’d say things are shaping up pretty well for the pensioners of Japan.

Naturally, there are some obstacles to this perfect robot future. I won’t even get into the obvious ones, but robot technology, high cost, and, MIMF points out, human mindsets need to adjust to robot workers, leading to my favorite quote of the spring. Says one MIMF researcher, “People need to have the will to use the robots.”

So right.

Feb
17
2008

Roborat 1.0: Future models, I expect, will have teeth. Lots of teeth.
Roborat 1.0: Future models, I expect, will have teeth. Lots of teeth.Courtesy The Weizmann Institute of Science
The way that scientists seem to be able to read my mind, or at least predict the things I’ll want, is frightening to me sometimes. Frightening in the best way, of course, like how a birthday party is frightening.

See, just the other day I was lying on the floor of my room, thinking about rats. I was thinking about how great rats are, and wishing that there was some way to increase the ratty-ness of the world. Because, for all the great things about rats, they still have their drawbacks. Their size, for one—rats can get pretty big, but, in my opinion, not nearly big enough. Also, rats die. Could there possibly be a way, I wondered, there on the floor, to create a rat that can’t die? Maybe a whole race of undying rats? Dreams, I thought, just dreams…

Not so. Scientists have done their thing (science) and created a robotic “whiskered” rat (and remember, robots can’t die, not really). And don’t change your pants just yet, not until you hear this—the robo-rat is also four times the size of a real rat! Where dreams end and reality begins is no longer obvious to me!

The “whiskers” of the robot are intended to allow it to identify objects through touch (an angle largely ignored in robotics). Using this powerful sense, researchers say, “the whiskered robot will be able to quickly locate, identify and capture moving objects.” Wonderful! All that sentence needs is for a “kill” to be inserted, and we’ll have perfection.

Oddly enough, the creation of a giant, blind, robotic rat is not the ultimate goal of this research. By building a robot to that mimics an animal’s senses, scientists hope to learn more about the way the brain processes and interprets data gathered by these senses. The step-by-step construction of this “brain like system” allows scientists to find the most efficient and accurate methods of interpreting sense data, and the result is likely very similar to the brain’s own processes. The results of a project like this one might eventually be applied to the construction of machines, for instance, that could be used “in rescue missions, as well as search missions under conditions of restricted visibility.” Or, ideally, to fill the nights of the future with huge, metal rats.

Oct
21
2007

A conceptual mock-up of the new phone: by the author.  (Original image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
A conceptual mock-up of the new phone: by the author. (Original image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
A new cell phone uses bone conduction to transmit sound to your inner-ear. So, now, instead of having to lift the thing all the way up to your ear, you can just press it to your jaw instead.

The conduction of sound through bone is part of the reason we all think our recorded voices sound so weird – they’re missing the resonance of our skull and jawbones. Using bone conduction for something like a cell phone should allow for the operator to hear and be heard better making calls in noisy environments.

Some potential issues occur to me. What about people who, like me, have beards insulating their jawbones? Are we to be left behind? Or what if we don’t want to look like this person? Some of us have enough social concerns with having to be seen holding a remote control to our heads every time we make a call (which may not be all that often, but still).

No doubt this has all already been considered by scientists.

Oct
17
2007

A typical American family: 2.5 kids and a Roomba.  (photo courtesy of mhaithaca on flickr.com)
A typical American family: 2.5 kids and a Roomba. (photo courtesy of mhaithaca on flickr.com)
A wave of human-robot love is sweeping the nation, says a recent Georgia Tech study, with a scale and intensity not seen since the release of Short Circuit 2. And what’s behind this wave of the future, as it crashes on the sunny, unsuspecting beaches of the present? Robotic vacuums. That’s right – little Roombas have crept into the lonely chambers of our hearts, and are sucking them clean.

One can immediately understand some of the attraction to “robovacs”: like a good, “real” friend, they are small, obsessively tidy, and can be purchased. Beki Grinter of Georgia Tech’s College of Computing thinks that the phenomenon goes beyond this, however. Grint began her study when she started seeing online photos of people dressing up their Roombas, and soon found that people were naming the vacuums, taking them on vacation with them, and, in at least one case, introducing them to their parents.

Roomba owners were even modifying their homes to make the Roombas’ “lives” easier; some bought new rugs; some sought out furniture and appliances with higher floor clearance; and some went so far as to pre-clean their floors to make things easier for the Frisbee-shaped robot.

Owners even tolerated Roombas with mechanical failures and functional problems (earlier models tended to break more often), because “they love their robot enough.”

The study seemed to suggest that, among other things, things that are designed to be somewhat emotionally engaging don’t have to as reliable. (This is, coincidentally, one of my mottos.)

One can also infer from the study that the average American family is finally ready to accept robot helpers into their home. Just think: Roomba today, Johnny 5 tomorrow, the Svedka vodka robot the next day… and maybe Roomba again the day after that.

Aug
27
2007

Welcome to the beach, kids: Don't forget your shoes.  (photo by Luiza on Flickr.com)
Welcome to the beach, kids: Don't forget your shoes. (photo by Luiza on Flickr.com)
Officials in Broward County, Florida, are considering using crushed glass to rebuild their eroded beaches. The plan, unfortunately, is not to cover the beaches with broken bottles, but to use well-pulverized glass, essentially recreating the sand that was used to make the glass in the first place. So a walk on the beach wouldn’t be, you know, torture. It would be a lot like walking on a normal beach, just shinier. I approve of this; everything in the future should be a little shinier.

It’s bad for business when beaches erode in Florida, and Broward has always resorted to dredging up sand from the ocean floor and pumping it back on to the beach. This isn’t cheap, and it won’t be getting any cheaper, hence the county’s interest in possible alternatives.

So far, studies have shown that the organisms and wildlife of the beaches should be able to thrive in the glass sand just the same as normal sand, although some have pointed out that it is impossible to predict all of the environmental consequences of a project like this. In the 1970s, for instance, Broward County attempted to attach 700,000 old tires to the ocean floor to create an artificial reef. When the tires came loose (and who could have predicted that?), though, they began “scouring the ocean floor,” and wedging against natural reefs, killing the coral. I have to admire the spirit there, at least – in addition to the glass beach initiative, Broward understands that, in the future, cars obviously won’t have tires, and we’ll need to think of something to do with all of the old ones. If only there was some way to make them shiny.