Scientists Make Cheap, Fast Self-Assembling Robots

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 WASHINGTON (AP) — In what may be the birth of cheap, easy-to-make robots, researchers have created complex machines that transform themselves from little more than a sheet of paper and plastic into walking automatons.

Borrowing from the ancient Japanese art of origami, children’s toys and even a touch of the “Transformers” movies, scientists and engineers at Harvard and MIT created self-assembling, paper robots. They are made out of hobby shop materials that cost about $100. After the installation of tiny batteries and motors, a paper robot rises on four stumpy legs and starts scooting in a herky-jerky manner. It transforms from flat paper to jitterbugging four-legged robot in just four minutes.

This small lightweight type of robot could explore outer space and other dangerous environments, and get into cramped places for search-and-rescue missions, researchers said. But that’s just the start of what may be a long-envisioned robotic revolution.

This eventually could be as technology-changing as the three-dimensional printer, said experts unconnected with the study and Harvard robotics researcher Sam Felton, who is lead author of the paper published Thursday in the journal Science.

Felton and study co-author Daniela Rus of MIT say they see a time when someone who wants a dog-walking robot would go to a store that has specialized equipment to make the device – “some sort of robo-Kinkos,” Felton said.

And eventually the technology could produce more complex machines.

“In principle it will be possible to say, `I want a robot to play chess with me,’ and generate a machine that has the computational abilities to play chess with you,” Rus said.

Today it costs a lot of money to build a robot, but this method is fast, cheap and specialized, Rus said.

“This is a simple, flexible and rapid design process and a step toward the dream of realizing the vision of 24-hour robot manufacturing,” Rus said.

These robots aren’t quite Transformers of movie and cartoon fame. Once they assemble themselves automatically with heat-activated hinges that allow the folding, there are no more changes, Rus and Felton said.

The robots themselves start out a bit smaller than a normal 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of paper. Off-the-shelf batteries and motors are embedded at a cost of about $80. Altogether, the early machines researchers made, along with the equipment to build them, cost less than $1,000 apiece, Felton said.

The robots, which the researchers did not name, are about 6 inches long, 6 inches wide, and about 2 inches tall. They weigh less than 3 ounces. They move about 2 inches per second. But they can be made bigger or smaller, with some limitations, Felton said.

He said the way heating activates the hinges was inspired by the children’s toy line Shrinky Dinks, which shrivel and fold when put in the oven.

Robotics pioneer Rodney Brooks, an MIT emeritus professor who wasn’t part of the research, said this could be close to other momentous changes in technology, such as the first 3-D printers or even 1947’s ENIAC early computer.

“Lots more people will join in working on these techniques, each making incremental progress and decades from now we’ll wonder why it took so long to get where we’ll then be with it,” Brooks said in an email.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — In 2025, self-driving cars could be the norm, people could have more leisure time and goods could become cheaper. Or, there could be chronic unemployment and an even wider income gap, human interaction could become a luxury and the wealthy could live in walled cities with robots serving as labor.

Or, very little could change.

A new survey released Wednesday by the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center found that, when asked about the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs, nearly 1,900 experts and other respondents were divided over what to expect 11 years from now.

Forty-eight percent said robots would kill more jobs than they create, and 52 percent said technology will create more jobs than it destroys.

Respondents also varied widely when asked to elaborate on their expectations of jobs in the next decade. Some said that self-driving cars would be common, eliminating taxi cab and long-haul truck drivers. Some said that we should expect the wealthy to live in seclusion, using robot labor. Others were more conservative, cautioning that technology never moves quite as fast as people expect and humans aren’t so easily replaceable.

“We consistently underestimate the intelligence and complexity of human beings,” said Jonathan Grudin, principal researcher at Microsoft, who recalls that 40 years ago, people said that advances in computer-coding language were going to kill programming jobs.

Even as technology removed jobs such as secretaries and operators, it created brand new jobs, including Web marketing, Grudin said. And, as Grudin and other survey responders noted, 11 years isn’t much time for significant changes to take place, anyway.

Aaron Smith, senior researcher with the Pew Research Center’s Internet Project, said the results were unusually divided. He noted that in similar Pew surveys about the Internet over the past 12 years, there tended to be general consensus among the respondents, which included research scientists and a range of others, from business leaders to journalists.

Respondents in this latest survey generally agreed that the education system is failing to teach the skills that students need for the future. Smith said some survey respondents criticized the system for promoting memorization of tasks rather than creativity, teaching a “Henry Ford education for a Mark Zuckerberg economy.”

Also, Smith said, some respondents concluded that jobs that don’t require specifically human traits – such as empathy, ingenuity or resourcefulness – are at risk for being replaced, including low-skill blue collar jobs or even white-collar jobs that have people performing repetitive tasks.

Respondents offered a few theories about what might happen if artificial intelligence takes over some positions and fewer jobs are created.

Judith Donath, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, foresees chronic mass unemployment with the wealthy living in “walled cities, with robots providing the labor.”

Some respondents see people returning to small-scale, handmade production, and an appreciation would grow for products with the “human touch.” Others thought people could also face abundant leisure, allowing them to pursue their personal interests.

Stowe Boyd, lead analyst on the future of work at Gigaom Research, said if, as he predicts, widespread joblessness comes to pass, humanity would have to confront its deeper purpose.

“The fundamental question lurking behind all of this is `what are people for?'” Boyd said.

For this survey, Pew posed closed- and open-ended questions to technology experts – researchers, futurist and tech developers – and other interested parties, including writers and business leaders, about how far they expect robots and artificial intelligence to grow, and what the impact will be on jobs by 2025. The study was not representative of a particular group of experts, only of those who chose to respond.

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