Rise of the machines

Pal Technology's Reem B is one of the most advanced robots in the world, but how far are we from a true robotic servant?

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By  Derek Francis Published  June 15, 2008

Watching the UAE's first homegrown robot, Reem B, step out to literally meet its maker, Sheikh Tahnoon bin Zayed, chairman of the Royal Group, was a hair-raising experience. In the presence of what is billed as one of the world's most advanced robots, the whole occasion was too much for me.

Was I the only one to equate the whole affair to a noir future where robots turn against us? We are all too aware of the implications, as told to us in films like Terminator, The Matrix or even Robocop. A machine gone wrong is a frightening prospect, and it seemed strange to me that everyone in the room was gasping in awe or applauding wildly.

But this is a little unfair, because for all it is worth, Reem B is a marvel of technological brilliance. And my initial feeling of discomfort soon subsided. Once the robot began spewing its pre-programmed monologue and welcomed the audience to the occasion, the fear that had consumed me dissipated, and my apocalyptic sci-fi nightmare waned. In reality, we are very, very far away from Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics. Reem B, for all its wonder, didn't show signs of real thought or intelligence. Instead it was an amalgamation of clever tricks.

Consider its abilities: its world-beating capabilities include the longest battery life (at 120 minutes) and the fact that it is also the strongest of humanoid robots out there (it can pick up 12kg, or 25% of its own weight). These are the only two ways in which Reem B is better than any other robot in the world. Everything else it does can be achieved by another robot. It can walk and go up and down stairs, it can recognise objects, faces and voices, it can generate a map of its environment and avoid obstacles, and it has fully prehensile hands.

Voice recognition technology exists today and can be downloaded for use on the PC. Admittedly, Reem B's is (probably) more superior to versions you or me could purchase today, but they're similar nonetheless. Facial recognition is also used in today's world. Reem B's impressive ability to find its way around a room is also not unique; there are robot vacuum cleaners that can do the same job - and they also clean as they move.

As Professor Sharkey, the renowned British robotics expert, highlighted, what makes Reem B special is its versatility. The fact that it is humanoid is no small achievement in itself; the development of robotics appears to at a stage where the balance between realistic and fluid humanoid movement, and true AI, is a difficult juggling act.

Elsewhere, robotics has flourished. A range of industrial robots have replaced human labour in production facilities of all types. In the domestic world, robots have been produced to perform household chores. Robot lawnmowers, swimming pool cleaners and vacuum cleaners are becoming increasingly common. There are even robots for entertainment - with Sony's robotic dog, Aibo, being a prime example.

Yet the vision to turn Reem B and its descendants into a truly commercial robot that can perform a variety of tasks, is a magnificent one that is a long way off. This is the Holy Grail of robotics and Royal Group's Pal Technology is pursuing this unabatedly. The company hopes that it is about five years off from producing a robot that's sellable. Professor Sharkey said commercially viable robots are perhaps 20 years away.

Pal Technology's precise objective, to be exact, is to create a useful humanoid robot that will serve humans with sophisticated tasks, whether it's giving directions, helping the elderly, or partaking in building construction. But a key fact to consider is whether we actually need robots to act as a tour guide in an art gallery, say, or giving directions inside a building. Surely portable voice recordings and fixed computer terminals do an adequate enough job without being as intrusive?

Reem B's autonomy time of just two hours is just one obvious impediment to a robot's ability to do meaningful work. Running on a Core 2 Duo (1.66Ghz) and AMD Geode (500Mhz) processor, how sophisticated can this robot really be? It doesn't even pack the punch of the PlayStation 3's Cell processor, for instance.

A crucial indication of its true abilities was when Professor Sharkey held out a scholarship for Reem B to grasp. The robot's eyes would pinpoint its location and co-ordinate its hands to make contact, we were told. After several quiet seconds, Reem B slowly but surely managed to lift its arm and take the scholarship gently in its grasp. What humans do instinctively in less than a second, Reem B took about ten seconds.

Let us take a moment right here to say thanks for the sophistication of the human brain. Then let this serve as a reminder of the challenges programmers face. If hand-eye coordination is at this rudimentary stage, then a fully functioning android capable of picking up your children after school is a kazillion miles away.

But maybe we are getting ahead of ourselves. This doesn't mean Reem B wasn't at all impressive. In fact it was, and this was why I squirmed uncomfortably in my seat while Reem B coolly showed off his facial recognition skills with unemotional chit-chat. I just thought of all the things that could go wrong. And while I like to calm myself by hammering home just how distant artificial intelligence is from our current capabilities, Reem B stands as a significant milestone demonstrating just how far we've already come.

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