The robot will see you now

It sounds like the stuff of science fiction – but could we become as dependent on robots as on our personal computers?

Robots are already a part of society, particularly in manufacturing, industry and the military. But what about robots as teachers, housekeepers, caregivers and even surgeons?

In all of these cases it’s already starting to happen. A super-advanced droid named Tiro, for example, recently assisted a human instructor with an English class at Euon Primary School in South Korea. Aside from a few glitches (Tiro fell silent for a few moments after the computer she was connected to had problems), the experiment gave a glimpse of what a futuristic classroom could look like in this high-wired country.

Korean researchers say networked robots such as Tiro could be used to facilitate a child’s education by, among other things, relaying messages to parents, teaching languages – and when the kids become bored, even sing and dance for them. Outside the home, a robot could be used to guide customers at post offices or museums or to facilitate security by patrolling public areas, searching for intruders and transmitting images to monitoring centers.

Some of these service robots are incredibly life-like. Take the case of the female android, EveR-1. Appearing to be a Korean female in early 20s, EveR-1 can hold a conversation, make eye contact, and seemingly express emotions such as joy, anger, sorrow, and happiness. (See a photo of the Korean android.)

“I believe the most innovative products that changed the 20th century are the PC and the Internet,” Oh Sang Rok, who oversees the massive intelligent-service-robot project at the South Korean Ministry of Information and Communication, told the New York Times. “What will [we see] in this century? I like to believe it will be robots.”

He goes on to say that he’d like to see a robot in every home by 2015 or 2020 – if not sooner.

Meeting the needs of an aging population
While U.S. companies, in particular, have focused mainly on developing military and industrial robots, the South Korean program is geared toward service robots, such as those used for entertainment, educational purposes and housekeeping. And Japan, responding to its rapidly graying population, is pursuing a robot program that addresses the needs of aging citizens who could expect to be served food by a robot, stay mobile with a voice-recognition wheel chair or even hire a private nurse fortified by a strength-enhancing robotic suit .

The intelligent wheelchair TAO Aicle (from Fujitsu Ltd. and Aisin Seiki Co.) uses a positioning system to automatically travel to a preset destination. Sensors are able to detect and stop at red lights, and also to avoid obstacles.

Secom Co.’s My Spoon feeding robot helps elderly or disabled people eat with a spoon- and fork-fitted swiveling arm.

And a nurse or caregiver can be transformed to Wonder Woman (or Superman) when they put on a full-body robotic suit, developed by the Kanagawa Institute of Technology. The massive unit, which is powered by 22 air pumps, helps caregivers to lift patients on and off their beds.