Oct 292013


More and more, they are also beginning to imitate — and look like — humans. And they are beginning to perform tasks as humans do, too.

On a recent morning Natanel Dukan walked into the Paris offices of the French robot maker Aldebaran and noticed one of the company’s humanoid NAO robots sitting on a chair. Mr. Dukan, an electrical engineer, could not resist. Bending over, he kissed the robot on the cheek. In response the NAO tilted its head, touched his cheek and let out an audible smack.

It is certainly a very French application for a robot, but the intimate gesture by the $16,000, two-foot robot, now being used in academic research labs and robotic soccer leagues, also reflects a significant shift.

Until recently, most robots were carefully separated from humans. They have largely been used in factories to perform repetitive tasks that required speed, precision and force. That generation of robots is dangerous, and they have been caged and fenced for the protection of workers.

But the industrial era of robotics is over. And robots are beginning to move around in the world.

More and more, they are also beginning to imitate — and look like — humans. And they are beginning to perform tasks as humans do, too.

Many of the new generation of robots are tele-operated from a distance, but are increasingly doing tasks independent of direct human control.

For instance, Romeo, a five-foot humanoid robot, will soon be introduced by Aldebaran as a “big brother” to the pipsqueak, kissing NAO robot. Created with the assistance of $13.8 million from the French government, the costly robot is being programmed to care for older people and assist in the home.

To provide useful assistance, it will have to do more than the repetitive work already being performed by commercial robots in factories, hospitals and other settings. Moreover, the new robots are designed not just to replace but to collaborate with humans.

The idea that robots will be partners of humans, rather than stand-ins or servants, is now driving research at universities and industrial laboratories. This year, new United States industry standards for robotic manufacturing systems were published, underscoring the emergence of the field. The standards specify performance requirements that will permit human workers to collaborate with robots directly, and they reverse manufacturing guidelines from 1999 that prohibited “continuous attended operations” requiring humans to be in close contact with robots that were deemed unsafe by the industry.

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