By Andrew Stern in Chicago
June 27, 2005
MEET the robot lobster and the android that not only smiles, frowns and blinks but also recognises people and talks back.
They're two of the entries at Wired Magazine's annual NextFest, a high-tech carnival at a Chicago convention hall this weekend showcasing futuristic, uncannily lifelike technology.
"The difference between animals and robots is robots get stuck while animals squirm their way through," said inventor-engineer Joseph Ayers of Boston's Northeastern University.
His robo-lobsters, designed to roam the sea floor and find undersea mines, are equipped with "neurons" that allow them to work their way around clutter much as real lobsters would.
Employing sequenced mechanical muscles made from the same metal mesh material used to make the stents implanted in heart patients, Mr Ayers said his work might lead to more lifelike prosthesis.
He hopes to shrink the mechanics behind the robot's movements on to a computer chip.
Also on display at NextFest were a combination submersible jet-ski, a virtual air hockey game and corporate entries such as General Motors' hydrogen-powered vehicles and General Electric's technologies to generate energy and make drinking water out of seawater.
A robot that resembles a small tank on legs was admired by Major Jeff Stone, who was taking a break from the army's nearby exhibit.
"Our soldiers love these things," Maj Stone said, referring to iRobot's Packbot, a hundred of which are in Iraq defusing and exploding bombs.
The most lifelike robot on display was one depicting the late science fiction writer Philip K. Dick created by Dallas company Hanson Robotics, whose founder David Hanson formerly worked at Disney.
The figure is seated on a sofa, and its face performed human actions ? frowning, blinking, smiling ? and replied to visitors' comments using a software program that chose from among 10,000 pages of Dick's writings.
Cameras behind its eyes could "recognise" acquaintances.
Initially a probable museum piece or fancy toy, the androids could one day become companions for the elderly.
Genuine life was represented by a cloned bengal cat and its "parent".
One man asked if a clone of the cloned cat could be possible, or if the clone could be bred. Told the answer was yes on both counts, he remarked to a friend: "You're next, dude."