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Plugged In

Eight real-life robots that outperform humans

Plugged In

Where would we be without robots? Our shiny metal pals have been making our cars, answering our telephones, and providing good bad guys in our science fiction for years. But there's still no substitute for the intelligence, precision, and...well, humanity of a good old-fashioned human being, right?

Wrong. Our robotic overlords are already here, and outperforming humanity in a worryingly large number of fields. Humanity's on its way out -- and here's just a few of the 'bots that are taking over:

Curiosity, and pals

The human race is pretty amazing, but take a jaunt anywhere higher than about ten miles from the surface of the Earth, and you'll realize quite how poorly adapted we are to space flight. We're squishy, can only live in a narrow temperature range, are susceptible to radiation, require regular feeding and watering, and tend to go insane if left alone for too long. In other words, space exploration is one vocation where the robots are firmly on top.

Sure, the Curiosity rover is currently hogging all the headlines as it tools around the surface of Mars and makes NASA engineers squeal with excitement, but that's just the latest in a long and prestigious history of robotic explorers that have boldly gone where no man is currently capable of going.


The other Google Drive

No, not Google's just-launched cloud storage infrastructure. This is something much more interesting.

Unbeknownst to most of its users -- and most of the drivers of the USA -- Google has been testing autonomous, self-driving cars, on public roads for years. They've logged an impressive 300,000 miles so far, with an even more impressive total of zero accidents while under computer control. That's probably better than your driving record. It's certainly better than ours.


A touching display

How's your sense of touch? Or, to be more precise, how many different materials do you think you could tell apart by touch alone?

However many it is, it's probably fewer than this 'bot. It's using a Biotac sensor -- a soft, flexible pad that can analyze a surface simply by touching it. Biotac-equipped robots can differentiate between as many as 117 different substances, significantly outperforming humans in tests. And if you're wondering what use that could be, consider how much better it would make a prosthetic hand.


Watson, putting humanity in Jeopardy

Developed at computer giant IBM, Watson is a machine designed to understand plain-English questions and sift through vast databases of knowledge to find answers.

Mostly the right answers, as his 2011 appearance on a special episode of quiz show Jeopardy showed. Watson took on two of the long-running show's top champs, beating them both in a two-game series. His next challenge: being programmed with a slew of medical journals and textbooks in the hope he can make tricky diagnoses a little more elementary.


The contraband ferret

Your body has many advantages. It's pretty adaptable, for one thing, and blessed with a large enough brain to enable you to use tools, master language, and think your way through problems that'd bamboozle any other member of the animal kingdom. But your sense of smell is, at best, terrible.

So whether it's drugs, explosives, or decomposing corpses, police and security services tend to rely on sniffer dogs rather than their own in-built senses. But there's a problem: dogs need handlers, and breaks, and feeding, and need to retire after a decade or so. Enter a team of researchers from London's City University, who are currently developing a robotic sniffer nicknamed a "ferret" to detect contraband cocaine -- and even smell the fear of the unfortunate would-be smugglers by picking up their fear pheromones. Be afraid.


Squad Mission Support System

You've doubtless seen the "Predator" drone on TV, but that's not so much a robot as a heavily-armed, remote-controlled airplane. The military is a little slower introducing true robots -- ones that can operate without human input -- presumably in fear of said robots arming up and rebelling against humanity in some sort of Terminator-like catastrophe.

Still, the military is more than happy to exploit one of the greatest advantages of robot soldiers: they don't complain. Check out the Lockheed Martin Squad Mission System, or SMSS to its friends: it can carry an entire squad's equipment and drive its way across all manner of terrain without so much as a hint of annoyance. Armed versions, you'll be horrified to hear, are planned.


Janken Robot, the world' s best cheater

Here's a robot that seems to perform the impossible. How can it always win at notorious crapshoot rock-paper-scissors?

Answer: by cheating. The work of The University of Tokyo's Ishikawa Oku Laboratory, this robot seems to make its move simultaneously with its human opponent -- but in fact, it's running a millisecond or two behind, and only commits to a shape once it's spotted what the human is going to play. Mental note: when playing rock-paper-scissors with a robot, keep the stakes low.


A Cube killer

How fast can you solve a Rubik's Cube?

If your answer is measured in minutes (or hours) rather than seconds, give up now. The best humanity has to offer is an Australian named Feliks Zemdegs, who holds the world record for cube solving, at a mean 5.66 seconds. But he's got nothing on the robot world. Check out this vid of CubeStormer II, a robot constructed of nothing more exotic than Lego bricks, solving the cube in just 5.32 seconds. Impressive? Yes. Useful? Perhaps not.

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