While robots haven’t yet taken over our daily lives like classic science fiction writers imagined, robotics has still advanced quite a lot in the past few years. From playing music to cooking world cuisine to ruthlessly murdering anyone in a given area, robots of today are capable of much more than we give them credit for.
10. Play Live Music
If you watch this robot playing the peculiar Soviet-era instrument, theremin – played entirely with hand gestures in the air – you’d think that it was just programmed to make those movements. Interestingly, it wasn’t – developed by researchers at the Graduate School of Informatics, Kyoto University, the robot is listening to music and replicating it entirely on its own. It can even play with other musicians, complete with visual cues and changes in tempo according to what their partner is playing.
It’s only one of the many ways roboticists around the world are experimenting with robots and live music. You can find many online videos of robot rock bands that can play as well as – if not better than – real-life musicians. Robots are inherently more durable and technically capable, as you can design them however you want and they don’t get tired.
What robots still can’t do, however, is make music like a person, as that still involves the human brain and the specific way it perceives music.
9. Kill Tumors
Until recently, the idea that tiny, microscopic robots that can perform complicated surgical procedures was largely confined to the realm of science fiction. That’s no longer the case, as advances in both robotics and nanotechnology in the past few years have caused a proliferation of a variety of medical nanobots. One can only imagine the potential medical applications of microscopic machines that could be programmed to do anything.
While it’d be a while before all of them are realized, nanobots of today can already do a lot. In a study published in Nature Biotechnology back in 2018, researchers developed microscopic bots capable of swarming tumor cells and cutting off their blood supply with clotting. Made by folding DNA fragments – a technique known as DNA origami – and a blood-clotting enzyme called thrombin, these nanobots were successfully tested on mice.
Of course, humans and mice have some…fundamental differences in anatomy, so it’d be a while before nanobots could completely eradicate cancer. Research is still in its early phases, however, and these results are promising.
8. Rock Paper Scissors
Janken is a robot named after the Japanese version of Rock Paper Scissors. It’s usually used as a fair choosing method between two choices, much like a coin toss, except there’s nothing fair about the robot. Developed by researchers at the University of Tokyo, Janken isn’t merely good at the game – it’s perhaps the only player with a consistent 100% win rate at it.
It might look like Janken is extremely good at prediction, though that’s not actually what it’s doing. It’s merely reacting to the gesture of the opposing player with the help of high speed cameras, only fast enough to make it seem instantaneous.
While it’s clear that Janken can’t be taken seriously at a professional Rock Paper Scissors tournament – as that’s technically cheating – response and reaction time is an ongoing matter of study within robotics. It’s especially applicable in areas like autonomous vehicles, where response time should be as close to zero as possible.
7. Assemble IKEA Furniture
This one might not seem as impressive as some of the other robots on this list, though it’s still a job many people struggle with. Putting IKEA furniture together is a universally hated chore that is – for some reason – incredibly difficult to get right, even with explicit, illustrated instructions. One only needs to search ‘IKEA furniture assembly tips’ or something similar on Google to really know the extent of the problem.
Thankfully, engineers at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore designed a robot that can assemble any IKEA product you throw at it. It’s a basic setup, equipped with two arms and grippers, and can already assemble a chair in less than 20 minutes.
While it’s not commercially available as of now and still requires a learning phase with every new product it encounters – so it’s not helping anyone, really – it’s an ongoing project. The team is now working on teaching the robot how to assemble something by reading the instruction manual, or even just by looking at the final product.
If you make a trip to Dubai, you’d likely come across robot police officers unlike anything you might have seen before. While it’s not really armed or capable of any kind of violence – as you can only use it to report crime, pay fines and other minor clerical tasks right now – it’s a part of a worrying trend around the world.
It’s not just Dubai, either – from Singapore to India to Israel, police departments are increasingly turning to robots for police work. Crowd control is one of the more worrying potential applications of robotics, and one area we can be sure robots will be extensively used in the future. With unrest and protests getting more and more common around the world, countries are looking for innovative, modern ways to police their own citizens.
5. Self Assemble
Self assembling robots form a part of the larger field of modular robotics, which deals with designing individual robotic parts working with each other in real time instead of the fixed-shape robots we’re used to seeing today. It’s the future, really, allowing engineers to build entirely new types of dynamic machines depending on what they need at the time, somewhat like the self-healing, self-assembling T-800 model from the Terminator movies.
As it stands right now, all that is well into the future, though we do have the first prototypes of what these modular robots would look like. M-Blocks is an ongoing project at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) at MIT, where they’ve designed 16 cube-shaped, 50mm X 50mm bots that can communicate with each other and carry out simple tasks, like arranging themselves into a line and moving. SMORES-EP is another similar project at the University of Pennsylvania, though their bots are a bit more advanced with better mobility,, as each module comes with its own set of wheels.
Even if almost everyone has heard of Boston Dynamics and their quest to build the most terrifying robot possible at this point, their machines belong on any list of modern robotic accomplishments. Atlas, perhaps their most advanced humanoid robot, was recently recorded completing an obstacle course, complete with a backflip at the end. While it might not look like much on first look, before Atlas, it was next to impossible to make a robot move like we do.
While it might have many civilian applications, too, Atlas is sure to be deployed on a battlefield some day, as Boston Dynamics has previously designed militarized robotic dogs for DARPA and regularly works with military-grade prototypes. Practically speaking, there’s no real, everyday advantage to designing robots to mimic how we walk or run, except inducing pure terror in the minds of whoever they’re running towards.
Many people consider cooking to be one of those jobs that can’t be taken over by robots. The most glaring problem is their lack of real taste buds, as it’s impossible for a robot to really know how good – or bad – something tastes. It also requires a surprisingly high level of dexterity – just think of how many types of unique gestures one has to make to cook something as simple as a sandwich from scratch.
Sadly, at least for professional chefs, that might not be the case for long. In fact, we already have the first fully-functioning robotic chef in the market, even if it’s a bit too costly to replace real chefs any time soon. Designed by a london-based robotics firm, Moley Robotics, the robotic kitchen – costing well over $300,000 – is really just a fancy, state-of-the-art kitchen with two robotic arms dangling down from the top. It’s capable of cooking anything in the world on its own, and the firm plans to add a total of 5,000 recipes to it over time.
2. Perform Surgery
The idea that robots would someday be used to perform surgery on people would have sounded outlandish even a few years ago, though that’s no longer the case. Hospitals around the world are increasingly opting for robot-assisted surgeries, performed remotely by actual surgeons controlling a specialized, state-of-the-art robot.
As you can guess, it provides many advantages over the traditional method. Usually, surgeons opt for an open surgery, where they cut open nearby areas to see what they’re doing. With a remote-controlled robot equipped with enough cameras, the same procedure can now be done much more precisely through a smaller surgical cut, reducing the risk of infection or bleeding complications.
Admittedly, the procedure isn’t automated and still requires a human specialist, which would likely always be the case for complicated, intricate surgical procedures. For routine procedures, however, automated robots could be a viable option, and we already have prototypes that can perform some automated procedures on animals.
We know what you’re thinking, and it isn’t what it sounds like – it’s actually way more horrifying. Giving robots the ability to kill people is the sort of thing movies and books usually warn us about, though behind the scenes, they’re already well past production and into the deployment stage.
The first and perhaps only documented case of a military robot eliminating a political target happened in Iran on November 27, 2020, when an AI-assisted robotic sniper gun was used to assassinate its top nuclear scientist. While it was never officially admitted, the killing was reportedly carried out by Israel’s Mossad operatives through a remote-controlled, AI-equipped sniper robot placed inside a vehicle, as revealed by a New York Times report. According to Iranian investigators, the AI was so accurate that it precisely targetted the scientist and spared his wife and other people in his entourage, possibly with the help of facial recognition software.