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This week in robots

Robots are being enlisted for a variety of tasks from military manuevers to keeping an eye on your toddlers.

Robots are being enlisted for a variety of tasks these days, from military manuevers with guns to more dangerous jobs--keeping an eye on your toddlers.

Rubi, a teacher's assistant at the Early Childhood Education Center in San Diego, is part of an experiment to study how robots and humans interact. Rubi is capable of tracking heads, detecting faces and interpreting basic expressions. Additionally, it can teach songs and--through the touch-screen--conjure up interactive games.

The robot is also animated with Bayesian artificial intelligence, meaning that it compiles data on its past experiences and changes its behavior to try to achieve certain outcomes. In other words, if the kids forget there's a second verse to "Itsy bitsy spider," the system will prompt Rubi to prompt them.


In a slight setback in the march of robots into war, the U.S. Army has delayed deployment of a robot equipped with a machine gun. The Talon Sword, an autonomous vehicle with a machine gun (or rocket launcher) mounted on top that soldiers can fire from a remote location, was supposed to be deployed in live situations in Iraq by April. Adjustments have been made, but the Army is currently conducting further testing.

Various branches of the armed services have already deployed robots in battlefield situations, but mostly to conduct reconnaissance. The PackBot from iRobot, for instance, crawled into caves in Afghanistan to seek out Taliban fighters. In Iraq, robots equipped with chemical sensors get sent into sensitive areas in advance of troops.

Roomba Scheduler

Meanwhile, the Roomba is about to become far more customizable in the home. The Roomba Scheduler comes with a handheld remote control and lets people program vacuuming times and create two virtual walls. The virtual walls prevent the Roomba from going beyond a certain point, sort of like an electric dog fence.

The vacuum itself comes with improved software, but is otherwise identical to the Roomba Discovery SE currently on sale. The Roomba Scheduler will sell for $330. At the same time, iRobot will sell the scheduler, two virtual walls and a software update for $60 to current Roomba owners who want to upgrade their machines.

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