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10 Robots with Very Specific Tasks

What do we want robots to do for us? The field of robotics is making great leaps in robot abilities, but these abilities come one at a time. We won't have Rosie from The Jetsons until the various specific tasks are combined into one machine. When that happens, they will take over. But until then, you'll have to choose the purpose of your robot, and hope it can do that specific task well. Here are some of the most recently-unveiled robots and what they can do.

1. Salon Robot Shampoos Hair

The Head Care Robot from Panasonic has a chair and a sink built right in. Get in and let the machine scan your head to determine its exact shape. Then shampoo and water is dispensed, and 24 robotic fingers go to work: eight massage your neck and the rest massage your scalp until it's completely clean. Then it's rinse, conditioner, massage, rinse, and blow dry. The process resembles a high-tech automatic car wash.The Head Care Robot is in public testing at Super Hair Seo salon in Nishinomiya, Japan.

2. Robot Barber Shaves Head

The Robot Barber actually has arms coming at you with electric razors. The machine is the Multi-Arm Unmanned Ground Vehicle (MA-UGV) from Intelligent Automaton, Inc. and is designed to do many different tasks with its three arms, each with multiple sensors including cameras. The volunteer in this video works for the company, and is fully aware of the robot's capabilities and safety features, if not its talent for hairstyling.

3. Pool-playing Robot Shoots Billiards

Graduate student Thomas Nierhoff at Technische Universität München in Germany equipped a two-armed human-size robot with a pool cue and connected it to a ceiling-mounted camera. The robot analyzes the configuration of billiard balls and calculates the best angle mathematically before taking a shot. It's not yet perfect, but it's better than most non-professional players.

4. Humanoid Robot Swims

This robot is named Swumanoid, short for swimming humanoid. Developed by Chung Changhyun and Motomu Nakashima at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, the humanoid was built by scanning a real human body to recreate the exact shape. However, the robot is only half the size of a human. That makes it slower in relation to a human swimmer, but its purpose is sound: to study the mechanics of human movement and recreate them mechanically. As a side project, it may be used to test performance-enhancing swimwear.

5. Flying Robots Assemble Buildings

Researchers at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology) developed robotic flying quadrocopters that can be programmed for delicate tasks such as assembling buildings. Not only do they lift blocks and place them precisely, but they avoid crashing into each other while doing so. You can also see these robots demonstrating their skills by juggling balls.

6. Robot Pooper Scooper Cleans the Yard

We want robots to do the tasks we humans don't want to do. Scooping up a pet's droppings should be at the top of the list! The University of Pennsylvania's GRASP Lab came up with the Perception Of Offensive Products and Sensorized Control Of Object Pickup (POOP SCOOP) system, which should win some kind of prize just for the convoluted acronym. The robot scans with a color camera, determines what in the picture needs to be picked up, then uses a regular scooper and bucket to sweep the area. One can be yours, for a bit less than half a million dollars.

7. Robot Butler Cooks with Microwave

Herb, the Home Exploring Robot Butler, was developed at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute. Herb is mostly a research robot, and over time has been programmed to grasp objects, tidy up a mess, and cook dinners in a microwave. You'd think that would be enough, but Herb can also dance the Macarena!

8. Teddy Bear Robot Lifts Patients

Japan is developing many robots specifically to help care for the elderly. Riba II (Robot for Interactive Body Assistance) is a robotic nurse that is designed to resemble a teddy bear (after all, this is Japan, where cuteness is important). Riba II can gently carry up to 176 pounds, lift fallen patients from the floor, and transfer patients to and from beds and wheelchairs. It's a simple task for an industrial robot, but a nursing robot must be sensitive and able to respond consistently -and will save human nursing aides lots of wear and tear.

9. Robot Teddy Bear Stops Snoring

This teddy bear looks like a big pillow, and indeed it is meant to be slept upon. But it's also a robot called Jukusui-kun (Deep Sleep) that can sense when the sleeper is snoring. Developed by a team at Waseda University in Japan, the robot is meant to help those with sleep disorders, like apnea. When the oxygen level of the sleeping person changes, or other breathing anomalies are detected, the robot bear softly bats them in the face, which causes the sleeper to change positions. The robot's monitoring system is completely wireless.

10. Robotic Chaplain Comforts the Dying

The Last Moment robot is what happens when you take medical and elder care robots to the extreme. Dan Chen is both an engineer and artist, and his Last Moment robot is functional, but designed to provoke a discussion on how far we should take robotic care. The robot says:

I am the Last Moment Robot. I am here to help you and guide you through your last moment on Earth. I am sorry that your family and friends can't be with you right now, but don't be afraid. I am here to comfort you. You are not alone, you are with me. Your family and friends love you very much, they will remember you after you are gone.

Now that is a robot that can haunt you even while doing exactly the task it was designed for. Maybe there are some things that humans should just do themselves.

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Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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holidays
8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Years Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: the punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names and images.

1. KRAMPUS

As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. Alcohol is also involved. Injuries in recent years have led to some reforms, such as requiring all Krampuses to wear numbers so they may identified in case of overly violent behavior.

Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. In modern times, people can spend as much as they like to become the best Krampus around—and the tradition is spreading beyond Europe. Many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.

2. JÓLAKÖTTURINN

Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. In fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.

3. FRAU PERCHTA


Flickr // Markus Ortner

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.

4. BELSNICKEL

A drawing of Belsnickel.
Lucas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. See a video of a Belsnickel visit here.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.

5. HANS TRAPP

Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.

6. PÈRE FOUETTARD

The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.

7. THE YULE LADS

The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls. 

8. GRÝLA

All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this post originally ran in 2013. See also: more Legendary Monsters

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History
84 Years Ago Today: Goodbye Prohibition!
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
A huge queue outside the Board of Health offices in Centre Street, New York, for licenses to sell alcohol shortly after the repeal of prohibition. The repeal of prohibition was a key policy of Franklin Roosevelt's government as it allowed the government an opportunity to raise tax revenues at a time of economic hardship.
Keystone/Getty Images

It was 84 years ago today that the Twenty-First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, repealing the earlier Amendment that declared the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol illegal in the United States. Prohibition was over! Booze that had been illegal for 13 years was suddenly legal again, and our long national nightmare was finally over.


A giant barrel of beer, part of a demonstration against prohibition in America.
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Prohibition of alcohol was not a popular doctrine. It turned formerly law-abiding citizens into criminals. It overwhelmed police with enforcement duties and gave rise to organized crime. In cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis, the dismantling of breweries left thousands of people unemployed.


Photograph courtesy of the Boston Public Library

Homemade alcohol was often dangerous and some people died from drinking it. Some turned to Sterno or industrial alcohol, which was dangerous and sometimes poisoned by the government to discourage drinking. State and federal governments were spending a lot of money on enforcement, while missing out on taxes from alcohol.


New York City Deputy Police Commissioner John A. Leach (right) watches agents pour liquor into sewer following a raid during the height of Prohibition.

The midterm elections of 1930 saw the majority in Congress switch from Republican to Democratic, signaling a shift in public opinion about Prohibition as well as concerns about the depressed economy. Franklin Roosevelt, who urged repeal, was elected president in 1932. The Twenty-first Amendment to the Constitution was proposed by Congress in February of 1933, the sole purpose of which was to repeal the Eighteenth Amendment establishing Prohibition.


American men guarding their private beer brewing hide-out, during Prohibition.
Keystone/Getty Images

With passage of the Constitutional Amendment to repeal Prohibition a foregone conclusion, a huge number of businessmen lined up at the Board of Health offices in New York in April of 1933 to apply for liquor licenses to be issued as soon as the repeal was ratified.

The Amendment was ratified by the states by the mechanism of special state ratifying conventions instead of state legislatures. Many states ratified the repeal as soon as conventions could be organized. The ratifications by the required two-thirds of the states was achieved on December 5, 1933, when conventions in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Utah agreed to repeal Prohibition through the Amendment.


Workmen unloading crates of beer stacked at a New York brewery shortly after the repeal of Prohibition.
Keystone/Getty Images

A brewery warehouse in New York stacked crates past the ceiling to satisfy a thirsty nation after the repeal of Prohibition.


Keystone/Getty Images

Liquor wouldn't officially be legal until December 15th, but Americans celebrated openly anyway, and in most places, law enforcement officials let them.

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