CES - A sensitive arm is the next big thing for robots

The next big thing for robots is creating an arm that can manipulate objects in a similar way to that of a human, Microsoft's robotics chief said.

Making a robot laugh by tickling it may be fun, but robots could mean real business when they get arms and hands that mimic the dexterity and sensitivity of humans.

Robots with fully functioning arms would be able to set tables, load dishwashers and pick up delicate objects, said Tandy Trower, general manager of Microsoft's robotics group, during an interview at the International Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas.

"That will be the tipping point. Once robots can manipulate things in our environment in a safe way, they can do virtually anything a human can possibly do physically."

The hardware needed for that may be available in five years, but the real challenge will be in programming the robot, Trower said. Software that allows robots to figure out surface textures and identify objects will require many lines of complex code that takes a long time to write, Trower said.

While hoping for a fully-functioning arm is reasonable, expecting real intelligence is another matter, Trower said.

"The artificial intelligence community has struggled for years to create models that allow technology to be more expansive. What we find today are crude things," like robots with limited human interaction, Trower said.

Building smart robots that can interact with people requires not only smart robot programmers, but also experts in other fields like communications and interfaces.

Predictions in the 1960s that PCs would control humans were overblown, and the PC remains a servant to us today. The chance that robots will rise up and control humans is also not very likely, Trower said.

Still, they will play a significant part in our lives. They could help ensure that a person's elderly parents living alone take their medicines on time, Trower said. "Humans might get exasperated, but robots are never going to get tired of saying, 'Here, take your medications.'"

Robots already work in emergency situations and are saving lives, Trower noted. Robots from iRobot are being used to search for improvised explosive devices in Iraq, for example.

"Robots have proven themselves to be more useful and not your imaginary threat that we've seen Hollywood [movies] portray," Trower said.

The health care industry may be a big growth opportunity for robotics, but it will require programmers with specialized skills to create robots intended to work in a doctor's surgery, for example, he said.

To improve the quality of programmers, universities are trying to introduce mainstream robotics courses. Carnegie Mellon University, for example, has started a course based on Microsoft's Robotics Studio software, according to Trower.

Another challenge is creating interoperability between the various software platforms and tools used to program robots. Getting away from proprietary systems will make it easier to exchange ideas and software code and help people build reliable robots, Trower said.

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