Robots Swarm the TED Stage

03/06/2012 03:01 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2012
  • Steve Rosenbaum CEO, Waywire Networks; author, ‘Curate This’; Speaker: on curation and storytelling

Each year at TED, there is a theme that emerges in the four day conference in Long Beach.

This year -- I came away with a clear picture of a change that is about to burst out of the labs and into our daily lives. Get ready, we're about to arrive in the world of Robots.

Yes, Robots. But not the way you think.

There's no doubt that we'll have our share of humaniod robots, like the work of Henrik Scharfe. His new Geminoid bot is made in the image of someone he knows intimately. Himself. Scharfe is the director of the "Center for Computer-Mediated Epistemology" at Aalborg University in Denmark. "It's not about replacing humans with robots," Scharfe says, "But instead to use robots 'to understand the full spectrum of what it is to be human.'" Um, ok. The Humaniod would have gotten to TED earlier, but it was impounded by U.S. Customs. I'd have paid real money to see that negotiation. Yet, despite the creepy and almost convincingly lifelike nature of the Geminoid -- it still seemed more like a parlor trick than an effective human replica. Face, hair, eyes -- sure... but it didn't do the AI thing well at all (more like pre-recorded robo-responses). Now, if you could hook Siri up to this thing and teach it how to walk, I'd start to pay attention.

But that's hardly where the interesting work in Robots is happening. It's much smaller than that -- and it has wings. Yes wings.

Regina Dugan is the head of DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Their mission is to "create and prevent strategic surprise." Said Dugan, "Since we took to the sky, we have wanted to fly faster and farther. At first, we wanted to fly transonically, then supersonically and now hypersonically." She continued, "Amazing, never been done before things require that you fly, but when learning to fly, you sometimes fail. Failure is part of creating. We cannot fear failure and create new and amazing things."

Imagine an aircraft the size of a hummingbird. They are maneuverable. The only bird that can fly backwards, and do other extraordinary things. And Dugan has an aircraft that can fly like one. A $4 million 'hummingbird,' equipped with a video camera, and weighs less than a AA battery. It flew for 20 seconds in 2008; a year later, two minutes, then 6, and eventually 11. "Many prototypes crashed. Many. But there's no way to learn to fly like a hummingbird unless you fly," said Dugan. Then she brought in her robotic flying hummingbird and let it fly over the audience. Absolutely amazing.

For a less aeronautic view of the merging of devices and humans -- TED audiences got to see a new medical device called Anatomage. Jack Choi is the CEO of the company that makes virtual dissection tables. This table was developed to help students explore the human body without having to actually have a cadaver.

While the table itself isn't robotic, Choi does suggest that it could be the input device for a skilled surgeon working with robotic tools. Imagine how much easier it would be to do remote surgery if instead of a camera -- you where looking at a 3D image with a zoom feature. Think Photoshop meets robotic surgeon. That seems like a future that is just around the corner.

But the robots that really changed my view of the future where the ones brought to the TED stage by Vijay Kumar.

Vijay Kumar is an engineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His flying robots work as a fleet, a team of aware robots that can work together as a team -- navigating real world terrain. Kumar's "Autonomous Agile Aerial Robots" can engage new spaces, like a collapsed building, and fly in ever-changing formations. When the robots are formed into a flotilla, they calculate (a hundred times a second) and maintain a safe distance between them. He showed a video of 20 robots flying in a variety of formations, and moving through obstacles, inches from each other without interfering with the stability of their neighbors.

What we saw here was robots who can do things, build buidlings, move cargo, rescue individuals, and work in changing environments. Take a look at these videos and you'll see the future of robots. Not humaniod robots, but actual flying robots that can do real-world things now. Or if not today, certainly tomorrow.