NH has role in expanding use of robots
NASHUA - Robots testing antennas for cruise ships, working alongside car mechanics and helping doctors make video house calls are only a few ways New Hampshire companies are making life easier, safer and more efficient.
"People are being more creative with what they want a robot to do or test," said Mike Fortier, president of Mikrolar, a designer and manufacturer of robotic devices in Hampton.
Robots are working along assembly lines at Osram Sylvania's three New Hampshire plants making light bulbs and helping children too sick to attend school to participate via mobile robots with video hookups.
"Robots are doing more and more things around you every day," Manchester inventor Dean Kamen said last week.
Some robots serve as testing grounds to improve repairs on injured satellites.
Fortier's 10-person company built three robots for NASA. "We essentially simulate the lack of gravity," he said, adding the third robot "does something I can't tell you about."
His company also built robots that simulate the motion of a moving cruise ship to test antennas and is involved in testing of prosthetic legs for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, with his robot simulating the ground moving.
Kamen is another person working on prosthetics. With a $40 million budget and assistance from other companies, he and his team created a fully functioning prosthetic arm that some might consider bionic. (See story, Page B1)
What Kamen started a quarter century ago, the FIRST robotics competition for high school students, has helped produce a new crop of robotics engineers.
While attending a Florida event featuring robotics companies from around the country last year, he heard people yell out their ties to FIRST.
"As I walk down the line of the event space, and I am not exaggerating, almost without exception ... every booth you pass by, 'Dean, I'm such and such, Team 1163 four years ago. Now, I'm working for XYZ robotics,'" Kamen recalled. "The robotics companies, the universities that are now teaching robotics, all send their people scouting at FIRST the way the sports coaches from universities scout."
In Nashua, VGo Communications has designed a mobile 4-foot robot that allows people to talk to others via video hookup, whether it be for sick kids or stumped auto mechanics."
A lot of people will say it's kind of like Skype on wheels," said Thomas Ryden, the company's co-founder. "I think that is a lot of our view that it will be in every home, and you'll have the ability to have this assistant to help out with tasks and kind of be that personal assistant in the home."
Ryden said Boston Children's Hospital has five VGo robots, but insurance companies haven't kept pace with technology.
"There's a lot of work that a doctor cannot do through our product or videoconferencing because they don't get reimbursed for that," he said.
Ryden attributed part of the rise in robotics companies in southern New Hampshire to the branching out of former workers at Bay State robotics companies, like himself, an alum of iRobot, which launched the Roomba vacuum-cleaning robots.
Robots at work
Osram employs robots at its plants in Manchester, Hillsborough and Exeter, and they are often faster and perform more precisely than humans, according to John Tremblay, Osram's director of industrialization.
"They're predominately robots tied into production lines," Tremblay said. "You wouldn't be able to be competitive unless you have the technology."
Through the decades, Hollywood has both glamorized and demonized robots, making some wonder whether robots someday will dominate or replace humans.
Ryden said people shouldn't expect to see Rosie the robot, the maid who worked for a futuristic family on the 1960s television show "The Jetsons," walking through their front door anytime soon.
"I think we are certainly trending that way, but this is early on," Ryden said.
Kamen was more skeptical.
"Never," he said. "I think what science fiction is really, really good at is looking into the future in a whimsical way and imagining using today's technologies or today's perception of what technology can do and projecting it into a future application, but by the time the future gets here, we don't implement it with today's technology. We implement with the technology of the future."
Play important role
But robots definitely have a role in society.
"I think robotic technology will continue to be developed to do things that humans either don't do very well or puts humans at unreasonable risk to do or are very expensive for humans to do and a robot will be able to improve the quality and reduce the cost of that function," Kamen said.
"Eventually, you may see some robots that, because of the function they're trying to accomplish, happen to be of human size and do human physical things, but I think that will probably be the last thing you'll see them do because humans are pretty good at doing things that humans are good at," he said. "Let's make robots that are good at the things that we're not so good at or that are dangerous for us to do."
Kamen said humans can use technology for good or evil just like fire can be used to cook food or set your house ablaze.
"There is no technology in the world that has enough power to do something important that's good that doesn't have the same amount of power to do something important that could be harmful, either intentionally or otherwise," Kamen said. "But the technology itself is not moral or immoral. The technology is amoral. What people decide to do with technology is always subject to, and I think there's appropriate concern, that it's always subject to what is the intent of the person. And it's unrealistic and naive to assume that we will build any advanced technology of any kind that doesn't have the potential to do harm."