It’s been nearly a month since Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez bit Italy’s Giorgio Chiellini on the shoulder in a stadium in Brazil (or, in Suarez’s words “suffered the physical result of a bite in the collusion he suffered with me”). But this week, just a little more than a hundred miles south of where that game took place, one Iranian soccer-playing robot in the RoboCup—the World Cup for robots—malfunctioned, falling on top of one of its Indonesian opponents and ripping off its arm.
Fouls work a little differently at the RoboCup, which for the past 17 years has invited teams of roboticists from all over the globe to pit their soccer-playing machines against one another. This year, the competition is taking place in a Brazilian conference center with a manmade pond and a building shaped like a space-age beard trimmer, where 2,200 human participants (and thousands more spectators) will finish competing for RoboCup titles today.
"I literally see these robots skirting around the lab, and it was almost as if I had this huge flashback to Star Wars. If we are ever going to see robots like that, it’s going to start in a lab just like this, right now, right here.”
About 60 miles from the site of the deadly 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima prefecture, inside a former silicon chip manufacturing facility owned by the Japanese computer company Fujitsu, a small team of highly trained engineers are working on one of the company’s hottest new products.
Fujitsu’s marketing team claims it’s already proving a hit with their oldest—and youngest—consumers. It’s so popular, in fact, it’s probably just the first in a long line of related Fujitsu products. The product is lettuce. Like the giant monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, this new head of lettuce is simultaneously a product of this factory’s past and the future.
Fujitsu is a space-age R&D innovator with sprawling, specialized factories. But several of its facilities, including this one, went dark when the company tightened its belt and reorganized its product lines after the 2008 global financial crisis. Now in the aftermath, it has retrofitted this facilities to serve tomorrow’s vegetable consumers, who will pay for a better-than-organic product, and who enjoy a bowl of iceberg more if they know it was monitored by thousands of little sensors.
The Lassie of the future will not bark for the sheriff. Instead, a wireless sensor on her harness will detect gas in an earthquake-shattered building, then text the drones and first responders on the scene. Or at least that’s one team’s idea behind a design from this year’s SmartAmerica Challenge, a project launched by the White House Innovation Fellow program.
Even though most buildings are designed using the latest digital tools, actual construction is stuck in the past; building is messy, slow, and inefficient. 3-D printing might change that, but recent projects like these printed houses in China demonstrate one of the technical challenges—the equipment itself has to be gigantic, because it can’t work unless it’s bigger than the building itself.
A team of researchers from Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia are working on another solution: A swarm of tiny robots that could cover the construction site of the future, quickly and cheaply building greener buildings of any size.