Hardwired help 

As the night sky makes way for the morning sun, an observant human eye might catch a glimpse of thousands of birds flocking against the summer landscape. Yet, closer examination might show these graceful creatures are not flesh and bone at all, but a concoction of balsa wood and synthetic brain neurons.

A “Jetsons” pipe dream? However implausible this automaton sparrow might sound, experiments in southwest England have taken shape to create such an artificial organism.

Robots are no longer an untouchable reality reserved for fantasy novels. Just 10 years from now, experts predict, a rod-and-steel mechanism could even be flipping your cheeseburger at McDonald’s.

In the meantime, our microchip-wired world has — or is rapidly developing — synthetic equivalents for nearly everything. Here are some of the hot ‘bots already out there, or soon to be on the way.

Welding worker

“Robots are more repeatable than workers, more consistent and usually perform nasty environmental and generally undesirable jobs,” explains Robin Schmidt, engineering specialist at Nachi Robotic Systems, Inc. in Novi.

A brief tour of the company’s workshop reveals nearly a dozen varieties of automotive robots designed to spot weld, arc weld, laser cut, grind or even work with tiny parts. A premier distributor of assembly plant ’bots to Chrysler, among other international companies, Nachi made history in 1980 when it implemented the first fully electro-mechanical spot welding robot in Japan.

With these ’bots, a unit 10 times the size of a home computer controls a single maneuvering arm. Each carries a minimum price tag of $60,000. “The justification is higher quality,” Schmidt says.

Human design

Spectators were stunned when Honda Japan unveiled its newest design this June: The 1.6-meter-tall, 130-kilogram machine wasn’t an automobile.

The pudgy, humanoid skeleton of this prototype, dubbed “P3,” is a product of Honda’s attempt to simulate the complexity of walking upright — a breakthrough appropriately labeled the “evolution of robotics.”

This sci-tech innovation can only walk at a top speed of 2 kilometers (about a mile) per hour, yet such a machine might have many uses for the car industry in years to come. In particular, thousands of lives could be saved if these ‘bots were used during crash tests, as they would be able to give testers more accurate information about the aftermath of mock collisions.

A fully functional robo-man could result in 100 percent accurate crash simulations, allowing engineers to witness damage to the vehicle, and to frail bodies as well. Fabricated sprained ankles, broken arms and puncture wounds might be the next phase in car safety.

Fantastic voyager

Traditionally, robots are thought of as Herculean-sized incarnations. Intuitive Surgical, Inc. has already shifted that perspective. On July 12 this year, the Food and Drug Administration granted approval to the company’s tiny “Da Vinci Surgical System,” making it the first operation-oriented robot to be approved for use in medical practice.

“When you sit down and operate with this system, it almost feels like you’ve climbed inside the space you’re operating in,” says Dr. Barry Gardiner of the San Ramon Regional Medical Center, who led clinical trials of Da Vinci.

Although the miniature, three-armed assistant was designed to create tiny incisions in the abdomen (known as laparoscopic surgery), the creators of the device are already thinking ahead. Heart bypasses and heart valve replacements are only a small sample of what Da Vinci will likely accomplish in years to come.

“This system is the first step in the development of new robotic technology that eventually could change the practice of surgery,” FDA commissioner Jane Henney commented during a recent press conference.

Also, medical magazines and Web sites have been booming lately with editorials about surgical robots which would travel through a patient’s bloodstream. Even though the idea far exceeds current technology, industry professionals insist that there will eventually come a day when even single cells could receive individual attention.

Personal touches

A pill-dispensing, CD-playing alternative to home health care might be on the way as well. Engineers at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University recently announced the completion of their pet project, “Flo, the robot nurse.”

Minus a human heart and an hourly pay scale, the robot reminds people when to take their medication, checks their vital signs and e-mails statistics to the patient’s doctor. And communicating with physicians is as easy as using a remote control, since a TV monitor is built into Flo’s metal frame.

However, controversy regarding the replacement of human care is in an uproar: “I fear that the thinking behind Flo reflects a truth about the public’s perception of nursing, namely that it is fundamentally about schedules and pills and nagging,” writes Diane Sussman, assistant managing editor at NurseWeek magazine in a recent article.

“Human contact and consideration … Now that’s something that’s not going to come from any robot, no matter how many CDs it plays or pills it counts.”

Also, at the Carl T. Hayden VA Center in Arizona, a device named “Robot Rx” is capturing the attention of pharmacists. Collecting a dozen medications in one minute and filling prescriptions with “near-perfect accuracy,” this automated store clerk might not be far from mainstream adaptation.

Lawn joys

What would you do with 30 extra hours each year? Friendly Robotics, a European technology facility, recently began promoting the time-saving wonders of its newly imported product, the Robomow, a yellow-plated yard robot that, simply, mows the lawn.

“After working long hours each week, I prefer to spend my weekends doing as few household chores as possible,” says John Floeter of Dallas, an avid user of Robomow. “Instead of pushing a lawnmower and getting covered with clippings and fumes, I now delegate it to the robotic lawnmower and take care of other tasks around the yard.”

For a mere $795, the 42-pound, 12-inch high robot is possibly the most widely useful ’bot yet.

As another 20 years pass, robots will probably be as common in households as goldfish. But for those who can’t wait, Tiger Electronics offers an interactive cyber-dog called “Poo-Chi.”

For about $30, it barks, sings and dances on tiptoes. And it won’t leave anything on the lawn that might challenge your Robomow’s turtle-like momentum.

Jon M. Gibson writes about technology for the Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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