Thursday, September 17, 2009

Driverless trucks and voice-activated pets could be commonplace by 2019

Driverless juggernauts could be on our roads within ten years, experts predict.

And these trucks look like being the forerunners of a robot revolution.

According to the Royal Academy of Engineering, artificially intelligent robots and computers capable of making life and death decisions will become more and more common in all aspects of life.

The academy wants a public debate about the social, legal and ethical issues raised by the increasing use of 'thinking' machines such as surgeons, soldiers, babysitters, therapists, carers for the old and even sex partners.

Their report, called Autonomous Systems, explains how the computer-directed trucks would use data from laser-radar, video cameras and sat-nav to steer through traffic and pedestrians.

Report co-author Professor Will Stewart, of Southampton University, said driverless lorries and cars would make motoring far safer.

'The machine is a perfectly safe object. It is not prone to some of the things that you and I are prone to,' he said. 'It can run 24 hours a day without getting tired and it will always do the same thing.'

He said the technology is already in place for driverless cars and robotic taxis that take passengers to any destination are likely within 20 years. Fully automated trains are already in use on London's Docklands Light Railway and a driverless taxi that can do 25mph on a network of narrow roads will be launched next year at Heathrow.

Professor Stewart said automated vehicles would be most useful for haulage, adding: 'I think in ten years 30 per cent of trucks could be machine-operated.' Their computers will be programmed to predict the behaviour of other road users, to slow down safely if other vehicles get too close and to learn from their mistakes.

If a lorry detected a mechanical or software fault it would pull over and radio for help.



Using laser-radar and cameras they will scan for traffic and build up a 3-D picture of the road around them. They will be programmed to anticipate dangers such as pedestrians crossing, other vehicles and debris. Driverless taxis are due to appear at Heathrow next year


Intelligent and responsive robot dogs, pets and birds that react to voice commands and seek out their owner's company. Can be fitted with sensors and alarms to alert relatives if their owner falls ill.


An autonomous robot was used in a kidney transplant in London in June. Initially designed for remote areas or battlefields, they could be fitted with 3-D ultrasound and video cameras and used for routine operations.


Primitive versions on sale in Japan can recognise faces, make conversation and keep track of babies. Later models could educate and entertain children and contact parents by phone or alarm if they get into trouble or fall ill.

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