The robots of the future are already among us

Robots might not be coming for our jobs, but they’re already proving useful coworkers in fields as diverse as medicine, horticulture and religion. Able to interpret the world around them using sensors and machine learning, these robots have very specific roles to play in industrial processes, working side by side with their human colleagues.

Moxi (from the creators of Poli) is a robot aide for nurses which takes care of restocking supplies, delivering medications or samples and moving equipment – giving human hospital staff more time for patient care. AI lets Moxi navigate corridors (with a friendly smile on its robot LED face), while its arm can recognise and grasp medical items.
Spencer Lowell

At cash technology company Glory’s plant in Saitama, Japan, 19 robots work alongside 300 people assembling currency-sorting machines for cash registers. Made by Kawada, the humanoid NextAge robots have cameras in their hands, making them ideal for delicate, repetitive work, with people stepping in for tasks requiring flexibility and creativity – or when the bots need to be adjusted and rebooted.
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Designed in the Socially Intelligent Machines Lab at the University of Texas at Austin by researcher Andrea Thomaz, Poli uses machine learning and cameras to move through new spaces, while its flexible, multi-jointed arm can pick up and manipulate items. The aim was to build a service robot, which Thomaz has since released with her company Diligent Robotics.
Spencer Lowell

“Worldly desires are nothing other than a mind lost at sea,” warns robot priest Mindar at Kodaiji Temple in Kyoto, Japan – though it’s perhaps easier for a robot to meet that particular Buddhist teaching than us humans. Created by researchers at Osaka University as a modern Buddist statue, Mindar can move its upper body and has a camera in one eye. So far it only relays recorded messages, though future plans may incorporate more responsive AI. 
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To carefully pick apples, Abundant Robotics’ harvester uses LIDAR to navigate orchards and AI to identify ripe fruit from foliage, using a vacuum arm to suck apples from the tree. Shown here at Mohar Orchard in Washington, the apple picker is already in use in the US and New Zealand, two countries facing agricultural labour shortages.
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This builder won’t require a cup of tea, but it can construct a wall. The HRP-5P was designed by Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology and Kawada Robotics as a robotic labourer. Head-mounted sensors and motorised, flexible joints allow this humanoid robot to pick up and flip into position 11kg wall panels, before screwing them in place.
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At the Socially Intelligent Machines Lab at UT Austin, researchers develop algorithms that help robots learn “in the wild” without constant human supervision, by interacting with untrained members of the public to see if their attempts at a task are working. Most robots are trained by imitation, but these ideas look toward social learning and interactions with people for cues – helpful for machines that will be deployed as service robots outside of labs. 
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The ISO Robot Plug Planting Machine rolls through this Dutch greenhouse, its robot arms nimbly pulling a row of lisianthus seedlings from a tray before delicately planting them at a rate of 18,000 an hour. The robot arm’s gripper features cameras and sensors that carefully measure as it plants, to ensure the seedlings are placed in the soil without harm and at a consistent depth. 
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Mammal-like ANYmal autonomously climbs stairs, tiptoes through water, crawls under obstacles and, when equipped with an arm, opens doors – all while monitoring its surroundings with LiDAR and cameras developed for driverless cars. Built by ANYbotics, this four-legged robot inspects industrial sites such as power plants, factories and offshore oil rigs, with a specialised version under development for explosive environments. 
Spencer Lowell

Forget Tony Stark – this is Sarcos Robotics operator and trainer Fletcher Garrison, wearing the Guardian XO. The battery-powered robotic exoskeleton lifts up to 90kg effortlessly, with sensors that detect operator movements in milliseconds for smoother motions without latency, letting warehouse workers, soldiers and more carry heavier loads without risking injury.
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