C3PO concept art by Jason Lee

by Jason Lee

This October Carnegie Mellon University will celebrate the 25th anniversary of its renowned Robotics Institute and welcome a few new members into its Robot Hall of Fame. The fact that two of this year’s inductees–Astroboy and C3PO–are imaginary is typical in a field that lingers somewhere between science and fiction. One of the ultimate goals for roboticists, a machine that’s as easy to talk to as a human, is still
far off, but the field has come a long way in 25 years–and the Robotics Institute continues to break new ground: A robot receptionist named Valerie greets visitors to the school’s computer science building, and “Red” Whittaker’s self-steering Sandstorm whipped the competition in the DARPA Grand Challenge, a driverless desert race. The limitations of both (Sandstorm crashed 7.4 miles into the race, and Valerie listens only to keystrokes) highlight the immense challenges of building thinking machines. “Right now, you need to program a robot to deal with every eventuality,” says Jim Morris, former dean of Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science. But in the future, he contends, robots will be able “to change their perceptions of the world and adapt accordingly”–a handy skill for any robot, whether it’s charged with cleaning your rug or exploring Mars. Click on the “enlarge this image” link to see our favorite ‘bots of the past year, plus what’s up next.