by Peter Griffin | Herald on Sunday

A pasty looking child was the centre of attention in Japan last week. He made faces, rolled around on the floor and barked out words. None of that would be too special were if not for the fact that CB2, as he’s called, is a robot.

CB2 has a biomimetic body, which includes dozens of actuators to replicate muscles and sensors to simulate touch and hearing. Tiny cameras substitute for eyes.

When CB2 stands up, he needs the support of an adult and his legs shake just as those of a child who is learning to walk would.

CB2’s creators hope the robot can be used to improve understanding of how children develop human relation skills – learn language, recognize objects, interact with other people.

The Japanese have been fascinated by robots for decades, but biomimesis, the imitation of biological functions, is seen by many scientists worldwide as the key to building robots that can operate in unstructured environments. That science is in its early days, but

think of the Terminator or the hordes of sleek androids in I Robot as the ultimate biomimetric robots.

Robots already man the assembly lines of car and electronics factories the world over. It’s a different story when it comes to consumer uses for robots. We’ve been told for years that robots will be infiltrating the household, but the only one to successfully do so has been the Roomba vacuum cleaner, which motors around your floors sucking up dust, mapping out your home in its memory so it knows where it has already cleaned.

Sony last year ditched its much loved Aibo robotic dog and the Qrio humanoid robot because the robots, while impressive, simply didn’t have commercial appeal.

But while the home may remain robot free for a good few years yet while models that can cope in non-structured environments are developed, there is plenty of robotic progress being made in other fields.

The US military, for example, is taking to robots as it seeks to lessen the risk of its soldiers being killed or injured.

The Battlefield Extraction Assist Robot (BEAR) from US robotics company Vecna, is designed to rescue an injured soldier, scooping the body into its arms so that other soldiers aren’t put at risk retrieving their wounded comrades.

The six-foot tall BEAR can cross unstable ground and stay upright thanks to the use of gyroscopes and motors controlled by computer. It can carry over 200kg in its arms and kneel down to gently scoop up a wounded soldier. It even has a teddy bear face to put wounded soldiers at ease. It’s expected to be ready for testing within five years.

Built on a much smaller scale, but potentially as useful in the war zone, are LANdroids, tiny robots that can be dispersed to form a wireless radio network to maintain communications.

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing LANdroids to overcome the problem of patchy radio communications in the field. The idea is that the robots are light enough to be carried by soldiers so they can be dropped at regular intervals to collectively form a wireless network for voice and data communications. Mounted on wheels, The LANdroids will also be self-adjusting, so that they can change position to ensure the best signal strength of the network. DARPA wants to get the average cost of a LANdroid down to around US$100 which will be a tall order given the sophisticated work they will be expected to perform.

The robots are coming in all shapes and sizes, but are unlikely to appear any more humanlike for some time to come.

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