‘Robots that stay in the kitchen making me a damned sandwich’ joined ‘my real hip’ and ‘the years of my life I spent raising you ungrateful kids back’ this week on the constantly expanding list of Things Old People Want.

You Think Youre Better Than Me? Youre Not Better Than Me.

You Think You're Better Than Me? You're Not Better Than Me.

A recent survey of Atlanta area residents found that all respondents, and especially older respondents, were more likely to be interested in a robot that would do housework for them rather than one that would try and interact to them. To which I respond: DUH! People want robots so it will essentially be legal to own slaves again, not so they can take shit about their exercise habits from the goddamn refrigerator. Did we really need a survey to tell us that all we want out of a robot is Rosie from the Jetsons without the attitude and abiding
sense of smug superiority.

The notion that the elderly are more inclined than the rest of us to want a robot that keeps it’s mouth shut is pretty unsurprising.  After all, despite advances in robot technology that stretch their life spans to grotesque parodies of humanity, they are still old, and they will still die before you and me. Which means they won’t be around to see the inevitable bloody robot coup that follows decades of silent, steely, relentless changing of bed pans.

Researchers at the University of Western England are working on making programmable robots out of living tissue, prompting the humble slime mold make the jump into the 21st century by getting all cybernetic up in here.

The mold has already proven capable of carrying small objects along during it’s growth process. Professor Andy Adamatzky and his team hope to take these possibilities to the next level, using chemical and light stimuli to control the way the mold grows, essentially programming it to carry objects to a specific point. Eventually, the hope is that they will be able to manipulate the mold, which already completes intricate computing tasks like finding the shortest distance between two points, to not only carry but assemble items.

Adamatzky isn’t the only one who thinks biological systems can help drive the next developments in computing and robotics. A recent episode of the Robots Podcast featured discussions with Charles Higgins, who is attaching the optic systems of dragonflies to improve robotic sensory capability and Steve Potter, who is growing neural circuits – essentially miniature brains in petri dishes – that, when attached to robotic sensors, can give us a better idea of how the same circuits function in the brain.

Oh, BBC, you’ve put me in a wicket that is ever so sticky.

On the one hand, I’m as ready as anyone for a serious rethinking of how we use Predators and other UAVs in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s particularly important in the latter theater, where civilian casualties caused by drone strikes play a major part in turning public opinion against US and NATO forces. The fact of the matter is that we don’t win the war against the Taliban in the region until we end public perception that we are the enemy, and we don’t end that perception until we stop killing civilians. Because frankly, until we stop killing civilians, we are the enemy to the vast majority of people on the ground in Afghanistan.

Since I’m on record as feeling this way, I couldn’t be happier to hear that Professor Noel Sharkey, who has been talking for years about the need for a reconsideration of whether the new face of modern warfare is a net improvement. For the soldiers who get to control these heavily armed automatons from half a world away, it certainly seems like it. But if we’re unable to distinguish civilian from combatant – a task that’s often difficult enough for a soldier on the ground – then are we really making wars more winnable? Or are we just making the rules a little different?

America - Are You Going To Let A Robot Fight Your Battles For You?

America - Are You Going To Let A Robot Fight Your Battles For You?

Maybe, by their definition, there’s no such thing as a safe weapon. But there’s a clear line between weapons that are ready to be used safely and ones that aren’t. And it’s time for a serious conversation about where UAVs and other robotic weaponry are in that process. Are they highly advanced? No doubt – technology has made undeniable strides from the days when all that robot warriors could do was rock ’em and/or sock ’em. But are they fool proof? Hardly, and when they’re not, the results are disastrous. So yeah, I’m happy that the media is giving the subject some love.

But really, BBC – did you have to run Jason Palmer’s excellent story on the matter under the headline ‘Call for debate on killer robots‘?

Hats off to Professor Masatoshi Ishikawa of the University of Tokyo, who has turned his scientific prowess in the field of robotics toward a subject  we can all get behind – creating the next generation of android athletes, superior to their human counterparts in every way, except for their inability to feel love.

Ishikawa’s laboratory is now home field for a robotic pitching arm that can throw strikes 9 times out of 10 and and a batting arm that can never swings at anything outside of the strike zone, and bats almost 1.000 on pitches inside the zone. Of course, that’s a tainted sample size at best, as right now it’s only swinging at 25 mph lobs across the plate.

But Ishikawa hopes that future iterations of the technology will be able to throw curves and sliders at upwards of 90 mph, hit with power to all fields and spout situationally appropriate baseball cliches. Which is great, but it’s still a couple generations of technology and a laser gun arm away from the ultimate sport – baseball played by fighting robots. Fighting robots that we can also train as gangs of ninja crime fighters.

Still, it’s a step in the right direction, and that’s nothing to scoff at.

Cerebral palsy patients at the Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains, New York are seeing positive results from robotics enhanced movement therapy. Initially developed for stroke victims, the MIT-MANUS robot has made strides in cerebral palsy therapy. From walking machines to computer simulations in which patients control a robotic hand that reaches, grips and moves objects on a screen, robotics therapy helps to recreate connections in the brain that send the correct signals for movement. The therapy promises to be especially helpful to children, whose brains are still developing movement connections, which then have only to be repaired, rather than rebuilt from scratch.

Scientists and patients battling cancer got their hands on a new weapon this week. Researchers at Oxford University have put a leash on the common adenovirus and trained it to attack cancer cells while leaving healthy normal cells alone. By disarming certain pieces of mRNA in the virus, it is rendered unable to harm healthy liver cells. But the process doesn’t stop it from replicating in and destroying tumor cells, turning the adenovirus into a seemingly safe self replicating treatment for cancer.

In medical news from the other end of the animal kingdom, a Hungarian stork has been given a new lease on life thanks to the latest in cybernetic animal attachments. While we’re not affixing metallic wings to injured birds quite yet, the prosthetic beak the bird received from an animal clinic should let it get on with a reasonably normal life in the wild, rather than the hand fed existence it would have otherwise had.

Cola drinkers went down as losers this week after a pair of reports that drinking too much cola can lead to weakness and muscle paralysis. Researchers have found that subjects who drink several liters of soda per day are more susceptible to hypokalaemia, a lowering of potassium levels that can result in loss of muscle function. And while I don’t imagine that anyone thought drinking 4 liters of soda per day was necessarily good for them, I’m hard pressed to believe that most people would have suspected paralysis would be a symptom of this over indulgence, rendering it the single worst idea since New Coke.

In happier to report news, fire ants are also among the weeks losers. Pest control authorities in Texas are trying a novel approach in the much deserved extermination of the stinging, invasive critters. The muscle for the latest attempt at controlling the spread of fire ants – nests of South American phorid flies, which not only kill the ants, but do so in a manner that is, at least in principle, astonishingly entertaining. After stinging a foraging ant, the phorid fly injects its eggs into the brain of the ant. As the larvae develop, the afflicted ant is reduced to a dunce, wandering around in a zombie like state until, after two weeks, it’s head falls off entirely, releasing a new phorid fly into the world. Now admittedly, importing non-native species to fend off non-native species is at best an imperfect solution (just visit the National Invasive Species Information Center for a few examples) to a complicated problem, and one rife with it’s own troubles, there is a case to be made that if you’re going to do something stupid, it might as well be kind of cool to watch.

The weeks last losers are Taiwanese goats, who proved less durable than one would hope when a herd of the creatures was apparently killed by insomnia earlier this week. Taiwanese farmer Kuo Jin-Shan attributes the animals sudden bout of fatal sleeplessness on the eight wind turbines recently installed near his herd, from which 400 goats have now died, apparently after losing sleep for months.

This week saw news about robots being introduced to strange new environments. One is incredibly deep, the other phenomenally shallow, but both are populated by bizarre and unnerving creatures, and scientists still have a lot of questions about each.

Making preparations to go deep is Nereus, a robotic submarine that can operate in both human guided and autonomous, free swimming mode. When it launches, it will make just the third recorded voyage to the Challenger Deep, plunging 11,000 meters to deepest known portion of the ocean floor. A project of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Nereus is equipped with a manipulating arm and basket for taking samples from the sea floor, like Japan’s Kaiko sub did several years ago. Nereus, however, will be untethered and operating on it’s own for at least a part of the mission.

While Nereus plumbs the limits of the deep blue sea, reseachers at the Interactive Robots and Media Lab at the University of the United Arab Emirates are hard at work on Ibn Sina, a robot who will explore relationships between humans and robots on Facebook. After creating it’s own simple profile, Ibn Sina, who looks human, can converse simply and recognize faces will reach out and touch people it meets in it’s home at the university on Facebook, looking to build relationships with them through simple interaction. The implications are obvious for anyone who has ever worried that all their friends on facebook may be imaginary. In time, they may be, and if Ibn Sina is any indicator of things to come, it may be sooner than any of us thought.

Despite two excellent NFL Conference Championship games that ensured I was left with absolutely no rooting interest in the Super Bowl, the best highlight reel of the weekend has got to be from BakaRobo, an annual competition to crown the stupidest, silliest, or just plain most useless robot of them all. It’s kind of like Battlebots, only if instead of violence, you were competing with suckiness. 

And this years stupidest Japanese robot is…YKRN, a robot who arbitrarily likes and dislikes people based on their faces, thereby providing one of the most accurate simulations of human behavior to date. And while it’s a pretty silly idea for a robot, I really don’t understand how anything beats out the pair of dirty joke telling robots. Or a trashcan doing a sexy dance. I mean, read that last sentence again and tell me how you design something less useful.  Other than the robotic Richard Simmons that won last years competition.

It’s sad truth time! Todays sad truth is that, by the time I am elderly and infirm, America’s social safety net will almost certainly be a fond, foggy memory, much like Pirates of Dark Water or a meaningful labor movement. I’ll occasionally glimpse a Social Security check in my mind’s eye while fighting off the bands of scavengers and land pirates that roam the bleak wasteland of my golden years, but dismiss it as a dream, an lovely notion never made reality.

On the other hand, instead of a monthly pittance from the government, I will be waited on hand and foot by a Japanese robot who will bring me breakfast in bed, pick up my straws and, after a few modifcations, smite my enemies with artillery fire. Okay, the artillery fire is still in the pipe, but yesterday was a promising coming out party for Twendy One, a humanoid robot developed at Tokyo’s Waseda University. Designed to provide care for the elderly and disabled, Twendy One showed off some neat tricks, not the least of which was manipulating an everyday drinking straw with astonishing dexterity and care. There are still a fair number of bugs to work out, but developers are hoping to have Twendy One on the market and in service by 2015. Check out the video below to be amazed, even if you don’t speak Japanese.