Do you know what a robot is?

Robots are one of the most popular visions of the future, evident in many science fiction novels, from Isaac Asimov’s “I Robot” to Douglas Adam’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” Humanity often fears that robotic technology could advance so far that these cybernetic organisms begin to think and act on their own, regardless of the human hierarchy. However, the robots we use today are quite harmless and perform a number of useful functions.

Scientists are looking at how robots can work medically to help people live longer and more productive lives. For example, the researchers found that test monkeys can move a robotic hand simply by using their minds. That hand can wave, peel a banana, and pick up objects just by reading the electrical output of the brain.

Doctors say medical robots can help stroke victims or paraplegics perform daily tasks. Today, electronic wheelchairs can maneuver and computers can write according to one’s thoughts. Dr. Bruce Volpe of the Burke Medical Research Institute is developing a “robotic therapist” who will help stroke patients perform arm exercises. “By improving movement in the shoulder and upper arm, patients can do simple things like push objects on a table, use a computer mouse, or write,” he explains.

Rehabilitation is another fascinating use of robots. At a consumer electronics fair in Las Vegas, Paro Roberts revealed his $ 6,000 robotic stamps that can replace therapeutic robots for cats and dogs used in hospitals and nursing homes. These exotic machines are also making their way into homes, as they are cheaper (and easier) than caring for a traditional pet.

This robot, named Paro in honor of its creator, reacts with noises and expressions of approval or disapproval, depending on how it is handled. Japanese creators of robotic engineering say robots could hold the key to helping an aging population struggling with loneliness. “Playing with robots reduces problem behavior and they gain some peace of mind,” explains Toshiyo Tamura, a professor at the National Institute of Longevity Sciences.

Who could forget the ever so endearing “Rosie”, the house cleaning robot from The Jetsons? While it seemed like every homeowner’s dream came true in 1962, their doubles are becoming a reality in 2009. Engineers from MIT’s Humanoid Robot Group say “Dome” can place objects on a shelf, store dishes, turn lights on or off, search for items, put food away, set the table, carry boxes, and follow basic commands. While the technology is too expensive to be common in every home right now, the future for smart robots is bright.

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