I, Robot: Machines manuever into the living room, assembly line

Asimov wrote about the Three Laws.
Humanity creates a robot to clean up the space debris enshrouding the Earth.

It's sometime in the future, and the broken-down satellites and other trash in orbit threaten to derail the fast-expanding colonization of the region outside the atmosphere. World leaders settle on a solution, a relatively small and unimpressive but strong and highly mobile machine.

At first, the robot does its job perfectly. However, its obsessive drive for perfection puts it in conflict with humans. After all, they caused the trash and continue to contribute.

By the time the robot has finished its directive -- creating a massive metal orbiting sculpture that reads "PEACE," it has killed nearly every human on the planet. Job well done.


Heavy Metal
Maybe not. I believe the story comes from one of the earlier issues of Heavy Metal magazine. (I have every single issue in boxes in order in the garage, something my wife Peggy is not impressed by.)

But it's a robot story. And that makes it cool.

Robots are starting to pop up more frequently. They're common on assembly lines, in medical centers and all over many technical processes.

A news item by Belgian-based Containers Maes got me onto this topic. The waste management and container company plans to install a robot on its various recycling lines that can separate the valuable materials. Dubbed the ZenRobotics Recycler, the machine has artificial intelligence and articulated limbs that deftly pick wood, stone and metal from incoming construction waste.

Containers Maes officials say their system incorporating the ZenRobotics product will run on solar power. (And thus the clean energy connection.)

"We want to change the game," says Werner Willemoons, environmental director of Containers Maes, in a statement.

Willemoons says the future of recycling lies in innovative technologies and calls the robot a "no-brainer."

A lifetime of service

Robots also are finding their way into the consumer market. Roomba's already up to the 700 series of its floor cleaning robot.

Says Ali Heriyanto of of the $599 780: "This newer generation seems like it floats on air around your home and it will get every piece of dirt – big or small, before calling it a day." She says it lasts longer than past models and calls it a robotic workhorse.

I'm thinking about getting one. I love clean floors, so why not?

The Three Laws

It's just a matter of time before we have to worry about smart robots. Before "Terminator," there was Isaac Asimov. In his fiction, positronic robots conformed to the Three Laws of Robotics:
  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Asimov reasoned that these rules were inescapable. Robots developed their own intelligence, and at some point in his writings, they appeared more highly developed than our species.

When I first read his books, I had my doubts I'd ever see such developments. Now, I'm not so sure.

Robots are here. They're just a little slow. But they'll get faster and smarter.

Let's get somebody else to clean the skies in the meantime.

Electric vehicles better watch out for flying pizza drones

Recent movies like "Transformers," "Inception" and even "District 9" have elevated public expectations of technological breakthroughs.

Science portrayed on film promises powerful new energy sources, morphing smart robots and mind-bending concepts. Tune in "Men In Black III" and watch Will Smith travel back in time to rescue his friend Young Agent K (Josh Brolin).

Alas, the real world is somewhat less fantastic, ushering in a limited-range electric vehicle for the dawn of the 21st Century. Call it the curse of George Jetson. The cartoon about a red-headed buffoon living in an idealized future premiered 50 years ago on Sept. 23, 1962, and while some of its computing predictions have hit the mark, others like personal space flight remain decades distant.

Robotics finds friends

On a side note, robot development does appear promising, especially with drone aircraft. The pursuit also has taken root amongst young people with events like the 2012 VEX Robotics High School World Championship over the Earth Day weekend in Anaheim, Calif. Tiny Riverdale High School's team under the tutelage of Roland Reyna placed in the top 40 of 396 teams. Reyna, who lives in Fresno, Calif. has inspired a team of mostly farmworker kids to tear apart old donated computers and electronics devices to make amazing stuff.

Still, nobody's created anything to keep up with Rosie, the independent house-cleaner robot that took care of Jetson family disasters. Likewise, George Jetson's flying transport with its iconic bleeping propulsion system may never get built, especially the feature allowing the bubble-shaped vehicle to fold into a briefcase.

Instead we have electric and hybrid powertrains that have yet to intrigue a significant percentage of U.S. drivers. The big drawback beyond their limited range and consumer resistance is the high battery cost. This prices many EV and hybrid models in line with entry level luxury cars.

Recharging EVs

There are also recharging issues to deal with. A support network is critical, says a report by the American National Standards Institute.

"This infrastructure must be reliable and broadly interoperable regardless of the type of EV or charging system," say the authors of "Standardization Roadmap for Electric Vehicles."

The report says that pesky recharge requirement is needed "at home, at work, and in public locations." The big question is how the infrastructure gets built and who pays for it. The home part's covered. Owners foot that bill.

But along highways and at many places in towns and cities? The private sector will have to work that out.

Systems of tomorrow

There's potential for wireless charging, but its arrival -- if ever -- is years away. In the interim, most of the options involve plugging in at a variety of locations and service stations and sitting there from 20 minutes to three hours while the car battery fills with energy. The problem here is to have the right recepticles and  proper systems. Conformity and industry standards will have to be settled before too long. The beta vs. VHS war of the early 1980s provides an earlier example of some potential pitfalls.

To move this technology forward, prices must drop. But that requires more sales. Solving the conundrum could take time.
Meanwhile, other technologies could steal the spotlight.

For instance, Thomas Frey of the DaVinci Institute speculates that pilotless drones will nose their way into the consumer consciousness. He offers this anecdote in a blog post: "Imagine yourself in 2030 ... sitting in your living room watching your favorite show on a 3D holographic display, and ... you instantly start craving pizza, and simply utter the word 'yes.' Thirty seconds later, a flying delivery drone docks with your house and delivers the exact pizza you were craving along with a six-pack of your favorite beer."

Nothing like Jetson's car. But the concept does sound possible.

Pilotless drones

A recent episode of "Harry's Law" on NBC featured a story about a woman whose privacy was invaded by police using a small drone to spy on her in her bedroom. The situation is speculative, but the technology is real.

Frey says flying cars will require the development of the following: fully automated navigation systems, low-impact vertical take-off, convenient fly-drive capability, silent engines and specialized safety systems.

Give it time. Frey contends flying cars -- should they be cheap enough to get all us George and Jane Jetsons puttering around the sky -- could do for transportation what the Internet has done for communication. "We could only begin to imagine the opportunities that would eventually accompany this kind of innovation," he says.