British Columbia

Intelligent robots take over downtown Vancouver, could the world be next?

Annual intelligent robot conference hits Vancouver, highlights latest in robotics and A.I.

Annual intelligent robot conference hits Vancouver, highlights latest in robotics and A.I.

A robot on display at The Intelligent Robots and Systems Conference turns its head and films passersby through camera's installed in its eyes. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

Igor waddles around on his two legs, picking up empty boxes and twirling them around with the enthusiasm of a small child.

When he's done, he can't quite stand still — instead, opting to gently sway back in forth on the two wheels he has for feet.

"You'll never see a robot — unless it's extremely precise and extremely expensive — [stand] perfectly still," said Dave Rollinson, Igor's creator and co-founder Hebi Robotics. "It's just not the way it works."

Igor's ability to maintain his balance might not seem like a big deal, but for engineers like Rollinson — it is. The bulk of free-walking robots are inherently clumsy — a limitation that's points to just how complicated walking on two legs actually is.

Producers like Rollinson are pushing through the frontier of what modern-day robots are actually capable of. He was one of dozens of designers and engineers at the annual Intelligent Robots and Systems conference, which landed in Vancouver this year.

And while the robots on display may have been a reminder that the 'rise of the machines' could soon be near, the message shared by many of the engineers was clear: robots are here to enhance the human condition — not erode it.

Technology moving, fast

Studies suggest that over 40 per cent of Canadian jobs could be lost to robots over the next two-decades.

The science-fiction inspired fears that robots could take over the world seem to be closer to a reality than ever. But according to Mike Hilton, CEO of the Vancouver-based Genesis Robotics, robots have been making human lives better for a lot longer than they've been given credit for.

"How many robots do you have in your home already? Technically your dishwasher is a robot, your washing machine is a robot," said Hilton.

A large robotic arm from KUKA gently draws the image of a smiley face on top of a pumpkin with the aide of its built-in force control. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

Hilton sees no limit to how robots can enhance people's quality of life. He envisions a world where seniors are able to use robots to lift heavy objects, while self-driving cars would enable people to be productive on their daily commutes.

And robots like Igor could help us get there.

Changing the dynamics

Unlike many humanoid robots, Igor is able to comfortably stand on two feet due to the 'smart' modular building blocks that he's made of — the blocks are his 'joints'.

Each one has a motor, gears, springs, and smart software that can be used to build an array of customizable and balanced robots in a relatively short amount of time.

The HEBI building blocks aim to be the LEGO of robotics. (Jon Hernandez/CBC)

"People have made wheeled robots ... walking robots, spider-like robots. People have actually just used the individual modules for prosthetics and rehabilitation."

"It unlocks a whole new generation of robot applications and control."

Rollinson says the end goal is to have LEGO-like robot building blocks, giving people the chance to build their own robots that can help with their unique needs.

"Robots aren't going to take over the world — these really are just tools that you'll put in to just augment human creativity and power."

"You'll put these in your drawer along with your drill and your hammer."

Follow Jon Hernandez on Twitter: @jonvhernandez