From Star Wars' R2-D2 to The Terminator to WALL-E, robots have pervaded popular culture and ignited our imaginations. But today, machines that can do our bidding have moved from science fiction to real life.
Think hands-free vacuum cleaners or iPhone's Siri or robotic arms performing surgery. At the Innorobo conference in Lyon, France, the latest in service robot technology was on display.
"These are robots that can help us with our everyday tasks, which I guess is always the endgame for robots, wasn't it? To do the jobs that we didn't want to do," says BBC technology reporter Jane Wakefield.
Wakefield covered Innorobo and tells weekends on All Things Considered host Don Gonyea that while many of the innovations at the conference are available now, they are largely used by industry or research institutes.
"A lot of the robots on show were so expensive, they'll be a few years away before we see them in our actual homes," she says.
DON GONYEA, HOST:
Over time, robots have pervaded popular culture and ignited our imaginations.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "STAR WARS")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) I am C3P0, human-cyborg relations. And this is my counterpart, R2D2.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY")
ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER: (as Terminator) Hasta la vista, baby.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WALL-E")
GONYEA: But today, machines that can do our bidding have made the move from science fiction to real life.
SIRI: My name is Siri.
GONYEA: And at this week's Innorobo conference in Lyon, France, the latest in service robot innovations were on display. Jane Wakefield, a technology reporter with the BBC, was there and filled me in. She began by explaining what exactly a service robot is.
JANE WAKEFIELD: These are robots that can help us with our everyday tasks, which, I guess, is always the endgame for robots, wasn't it, to sort of do the jobs that we didn't want to do. And, I mean, increasingly, in the factories around the world, robots are doing all kinds of jobs. I mean, they don't necessarily look like the robots of Sci-Fi. You know, they might literally just be an arm. But at Innorobo, there was much more of the kind of cutting-edge stuff that looks a lot more like us, and therefore is a lot more scary.
GONYEA: Looks a lot more like us. What do you mean?
WAKEFIELD: So robots that were wearing clothes and robots with sort of very human-looking faces, some very cute little robots. One of them called Sammy is a prototype that's been developed to help people around the home with tasks. So he's got a face, and he can move independently. And the aim is eventually for him to be able to kind of help people that are disabled and that can't do things around the house. Just do those basic functions that will allow them to still live independently.
GONYEA: So there's a robotic salamander with a tail that wiggles.
WAKEFIELD: Yes, yes. And the whole point of this project is to mimic the real movements of a salamander, so to copy exactly how its spinal column and neural systems work and recreate that. So we saw the salamander sort of slipping through the water in a very realistic way and then getting out onto land and being able to walk. This has implications not just for creating amphibious robots that will be able to both walk on land and then go into water, but also being able to mimic mathematically how a neural system works. Has huge implications for how we deal with people with paralysis and other spinal cord issues in the future.
GONYEA: The whole area of health and health aids and advancement of health has to be huge in this field.
WAKEFIELD: Yes. There was lots of things on show like a robotic feeding system for people that can't kind of feed themselves, which was actually developed by somebody who wasn't able to feed himself, and he was fed up with having to go to restaurants and be fed. So he came up with this portable system, which is literally just a spoon and it moves, and it picks up any food that's in a plate underlying it and puts it in people's mouths. So it has a great potential to change lives.
GONYEA: And a lot of these things are available now. This is not just about the future.
WAKEFIELD: No. A lot of these things are available now. A lot of it is stuff that's used by industry or being used by research institutes. There's very few robots for the home. The ones that are for the home tends to be the sort of cleaning devices. So the little sort of disc-like vacuum cleaner robots and similar ones that mow your lawn. So there's that those sort of devices that are starting to hit the home market, but a lot of the robots on show were so expensive, they'll be a few years away before we see them in our actual homes.
GONYEA: So we're talking about service robots. And even if these aren't widely available yet, it does seem hard to separate them from the connection that we all feel to robots just through pop culture, right? You've got "The Terminator." But way back when I was a little kid in the 1960s...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE JETSONS")
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Meet George Jetsons.
GONYEA: ...the Jetsons had their service robot, Rosie the maid.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE JETSONS")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) Rosie.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as Rosie the Maid) Coming, sir.
GONYEA: It feels like it must be hard to separate these preconceptions that we all bring based on pop culture with what you're really looking at there at the trade show.
WAKEFIELD: Yes. It's interesting. There was a guy there from South Korea who collects robots. And he had a load of retro robots. And kids were coming up, and they'd just been to visit these incredibly sophisticated robots around the corner that could do all these amazing things like actually use a hand like a human would with really fine motor skills.
But these robotic toys, they got as much smiles out of the kids, which just proves that robots of our childhood and this sort of popular culture of how robots should look hasn't gone away. And we still sort of have that yearning for that kind of classic robot that is basically quite different from us. And the idea that perhaps robots are getting closer to being human is a bit that sort of really scares us.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GONYEA: That's Jane Wakefield, BBC technology reporter. Thanks for being with us.
WAKEFIELD: No worries. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.