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a rescue scenario inside a collapsed library, researchers wash and decontaminate a search-and-rescue robot of potentially hazardous materials

After completing a rescue scenario inside a collapsed library, researchers wash and decontaminate a search-and-rescue robot of potentially hazardous materials ...

Credit: CRASAR, University of South Florida

Overview: The Quest for Intelligence
2 photos: one of live cockroach and one robotic cockroach
A team led by Robert Full of the University of California, Berkeley, will work with cockroaches — both living and robotic — to uncover… .

Credit: Robert Full, UC Berkeley (left). Daniel Koditschek, University of Pennsylvania (right)

Robots have long captured the human imagination. But despite many advances, robots have yet to reach the potential so often envisioned in science fiction. Today's engineers and computer scientists are still pursuing one missing ingredient: high intelligence. It would be nice for example, if robots possessed the intelligence needed to cope with uncertainty, learn from experience and work as a team.

Robots with minimal intelligence are already invading our homes. For example, more than 500,000 Roombas, the vacuum cleaner from iRobot, have been sold, and Friendly Robotics has sold 25,000 automatic lawn mowers. Toy robots have also been given minimal intelligence. Robot dogs such as the Sony AIBO can identify and chase a ball, avoid obstacles and respond to voice commands.

At the robotics frontier, researchers seek more intelligence, but not necessarily that of a fully functional human brain. A cockroach brain would be nice, for starters. Insects easily control six legs as they scamper over, under or around obstacles, and robot designers are borrowing features from insect nervous systems to build six-legged robots with similar talents.

"Intelligent robots will be one of the engineering achievements of the 21 st century," said Junku Yuh, who leads the robotics program in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Computer and Information Science and Engineering directorate. "We will see them more and more in our daily lives."

Throughout history, robots have embodied and exemplified cutting-edge technology. Mechanical automatons were devised during the Industrial Revolution, electronic circuitry was added at the turn of the 20th century, computers gave robots "brains" in the 1940s and shrinking electronics and more powerful computers have granted robots greater abilities. Industries adopted robots for many manufacturing tasks, from automobile assembly to ship welding.

During the past 20 years, advances in sensors, actuators and "mechatronics" -- the integration of electronics with mechanical design -- have led to remarkable robots such as Honda's humanoid ASIMO. Of course, every advance brings new sets of challenges.

Today, NSF supports mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, computer scientists and other researchers as they develop future generations of intelligent robots. These engineers and computer scientists cooperate with biologists, neuroscientists and psychologists to exploit new knowledge in the study of the brain and behavior. NSF also supports education activities that use robots as a platform for studying mechanics, electronics, software and other topics.

In addition to the challenges of packaging intelligence, robotics research ultimately pursues practical goals. Some robots will help people do what they can't or would rather not do. Other robots will tackle complex projects by working as teams. Robots will help protect critical infrastructure and monitor the environment as mobile, intelligent sensors. And of course, robots will continue to explore extreme environments where no human can go, or wants to.

By David Hart
Robotics A Special Report