Humanity is fast being driven toward using robots more often for an ever increasing number of applications according to Professor Rodney Brooks who gave this year's RSI Lecture.

This is due to, for the most part, ageing populations in the more technologically advanced countries, in particular the US, Japan and the UK. Justin Richards reports.

Robots are increasingly relied upon as farm and factory labour, working within both rural and manufacturing industries.

Professor Brooks reported a 35 per cent increase in robot use within these two sectors and said that increased demand would ultimately bring the price down. Japan, probably the biggest robot user per head, uses robots in its construction industry whenever it can.

However, robots aren't completely autonomous, yet, and still frequently rely on supervision, often via teleoperation and direct human intervention. In order to get robots into more homes there first changes have to be made, which include further in roads toward total autonomy.

In contrast, robots in the military tend to be more expensive because they have to be integrated into a very complex system, and total autonomy would not necessarily be beneficial within this arena.

Teleoperated robots include production line robots working in Honda plants and space robots where it's important to get things right first time, hence, astronauts tend to be relied on more.

Within the military robots tend to be either purely teleoperational (remote controlled) or part supervisory, where some actions the robots can perform without prompting by their monitors.

In 2002 there were no ground robots in the US military or in US homes. Now there are 2.5 million in homes alone. This is due to increased practicability in their form and function; the robotics industry has moved away from just achieving academic robustness.

Robots have been deployed very successfully in modern warfare and in disaster zones in places too dangerous for people to go. For example, robots were used within the ruins of the World Trade Center to locate trapped bodies and survivors.

They also have a similar function in war zones where they are sent ahead of troops to locate hostile forces lying in wait and to detect and disable explosives. These robots will have two way audio/visual capability, infra-red viewing, and built-in cameras with low light capacity.

Over recent years the military have swapped traditional laptop style controls for a gaming console type of controller that seems to suit military personnel more.

Initially treated with disdain by military personnel robots have become increasingly popular and there were cases where Special Forces were ordering them through Wal-Mart rather than have to wait for new robots to arrive via military acquisitions.

Troops have been known to become emotionally attached to robots in their care and have displayed irrational behaviour when they've been damaged and/or destroyed. The fact is that robots are an essential part of modern warfare these days.

Sensor based software is being developed to make robots work more efficiently and to increase their capabilities, along with a series of hardware agnostic sensor systems. Whereas the software used for robotic development used to be highly proprietary it's now 98 per cent open source.

Along with evolving hard and software comes evolving capabilities including robots that can swim and fly, although these are still at early stages of development and used mainly within the military. They are also learning how to work with each other; for example, creating maps of buildings as they search them.

How far can robots go?

Back in 1979 Brooks helped develop a robot which had to pause and recompute for 15 minutes before moving another couple of metres. Its progress was typically 20 metres every six hours. Since then robotics has developed rapidly, by four orders of magnitude in just 26 years, roughly doubling every two years.

For example, by 2005 a similar form of robot could travel 200km within the same six hours. This has been possible by cramming more components onto integrated circuits; today there can be 65,000 components on one chip. This rate of improvement is proportional to the current level of adoption of available technologies.

Robotics depends largely on storage capacity for data and information. In order for robots to accomplish more tasks more of the time they will need the ability to more quickly assimilate greater amounts of stored information.

Present storage capacity growth trends seem to indicate that storage capacity probably won't be a problem in future. For example, if we take an iPod as a current storage marker and use our current knowledge of storage growth within that platform, we can make educated estimations of the future.

If in 2003 10 GB of memory was available, in 2015 40,000GB will be available, while in 2025 40 MegaGB will be achievable. Which means that by 2009 a person will be able to store a million books on their iPod and by 2020 819,200 movies! This in turn will mean that every robot will be able to store a highly detailed map of the Earth on a solid state disc.

Professor brooks also predicted that in future we could have an RFID tag for every product and a robot that has a library of every tag around the world to help us 'shop' for the best buy. With personal storage more than doubling year on year this is highly likely.

Human/ robot interactions will be increasingly important as their numbers and sophistication increase. Engineers are working on building human like visual attention systems into robots so that we can see what a robot is focussing on and eventually, at least appear to give emotional responses to humans.

Increasing robot autonomy is also very much on the agenda as currently there are no robots that can grasp objects unsupervised; they can if supervised. Robots can 'sense' forces but can't feel in the way that we do, which makes that side of their development an interesting challenge. Simple speech interfaces will also be increasingly available to robots, such as Sphinx open source software.

Pre-empting the question he's asked most Professor Brooks said he didn't think robots would ever take over from humans. It's more likely that as robots become more and more human like through their evolution we’ll become more robotic through ours, via replacement parts and implants.