Technology TED Conferences

The best robots at TED

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

In session 1 of TED2013, we are meeting many new robots. First, we watched the amazing clip above of a troupe of tiny humanoid Nao robots dancing intricate choreography in unison. (They were presented by Bruno Maisonnier of Aldebaran Robotics at TEDxConcorde and beamed straight to the TED stage.) Next, Rodney Brooks unveiled Baxter, the human–like bot who can do mundane tasks for you. And finally, Keller Rinaudo introduced us to Romo, the smartphone robot, an affordable device that makes a cell phone into a pet.

Nearly every year at TED, we get a peek at the incredible advances going on in the fields of robotics. Below, the best robots from TED events past in reverse chronological order.

Vijay Kumar: Robots that fly ... and cooperateVijay Kumar: Robots that fly ... and cooperateVijay Kumar: Robots that fly … and cooperate
The Event: TED2012
The Robots: Autonomous agile aerial robots
What they do: These tiny, 8-inch flying quadrotors know where they are without GPS, and their small size makes them able to turn, circle and flip — extremely quickly. But these bots can also work together. Forming teams, they can transport cargo, build things, assess damage after disasters — even map radiation and leaks in unsafe areas.
See them in action: Watch them flip at 3:46. Watch one navigate obstacles at 7:17. And fast-forward to 10:05 to see a choreographed swarm.
Markus Fischer: A robot that flies like a birdMarkus Fischer: A robot that flies like a birdA robot that flies like a bird
The Event: TEDGlobal 2011
The Robot: SmartBird
What it does: Modeled after a seagull, this robot is light and aerodynamic. And it flies by flapping its wings, allowing engineers to study what we can learn from bird motion.
See it in action: Watch it start flapping and take off at 2:08, taking several flying loops around the TEDGlobal theater.
Péter Fankhauser: Meet Rezero, the dancing ballbotPéter Fankhauser: Meet Rezero, the dancing ballbotPeter Fankhauser: Meet Rezero, the dancing ballbot
The Event: TEDGlobal 2011
The Robot: Rezero
What it does: This robot can dance. Technically a ballbot, he balances on a single, large ball rather than on multiple wheels — which allows for ballet-like movement. These robots could be used in a hospital to carry equipment, or could even be a form of transportation.
See it in action: See Rezero’s balance checked at 1:48. And watch him full-out dance and pirouette at 3:57.
Cynthia Breazeal: The rise of personal robotsCynthia Breazeal: The rise of personal robotsCynthia Breazeal: The rise of personal robots
The Event: TEDWomen 2010
The Robots: Kismet, Leo and Autumn
What they do: Meet the world’s first social robots, able to learn from us, listen to us and even teach us how they interact. The cutest robot around, furry Leo reacts to social cues as he is presented with an unfamiliar object – much like a child, he looks to people to learn how he should react. Autumn is a diet and exercise coach who can motivate you to set healthy goals. These social robots can be used to get kids away from screens and playing physically – as the characters go back and forth between the screen and the real world.
See them in action: Watch Kismet listening to one of Breazeal’s teammates at 1:31. See Leo learn in real time at 2:34. Get a glimpse of Autumn at 8:44. And at 11:33, watch the playful robots move between realities.
Heather Knight: Silicon-based comedyHeather Knight: Silicon-based comedyHeather Knight: Silicon-based comedy
The Event: TEDWomen2010
The Robot: Data
What it does: This robot has jokes — and lots of them. Using a database of humor, Data creates stand-up routines on the fly. It learns from laughter and applause, figuring out what is working and what isn’t — and tailors its humor based on the reaction.
See it in action: Get ready to laugh at 3:30.
David Hanson: Robots that "show emotion"David Hanson: Robots that "show emotion"David Hanson: Robots that “show emotion”
The Event: TED2009
The Robot: Einstein
What it does:  This robot has empathy. Rather than bleeping, a la R2-D2, Hanson’s robots have faces — made of Frubber — making them look and act as if they were human. These robots show emotions and react to the expressions of others with facial gestures of their own.
See it in action: See Einstein brought back to life at 2:10.
P.W. Singer: Military robots and the future of warP.W. Singer: Military robots and the future of warPW Singer on military robots and the future of wars
The Event: TED2009
The Robots: PackBot, robotic tanks, drones
What they do: These robots go to war zones and perform tasks that are too dangerous for humans. Singer begins his talk with the story of PackBot, a robot who went to Iraq to investigate IEDs and lost his life in a blast. In this prescient talk from early 2009, Singer predicts we may see tens of thousands of robots both fighting wars and keeping peace alongside living soldiers.
See them in action: At 3:45, see images of the robots currently in use in war zones.
Hod Lipson: Building "self-aware" robotsHod Lipson: Building "self-aware" robotsHod Lipson builds “self-aware” robots
The Event:
TED2007
The Robots: Self-aware robots
What they do: These robots evolve. Hod Lipson applied natural selection to robots – rewarding those that succeeded in moving forward, and denying those that did not. As a result, they’ve gradually become more advanced. Some of these models do not know their shape at first, but learn how to move through processes of elimination. They use programmed “self-models” to understand a unique, unprogrammed way to move.
See them in action: Watch a robot learn how to move at 3:57. And at 5:23, watch robots whose form of reward is self-replication — it grows as it absorbs other robots.
Rodney Brooks: Robots will invade our livesRodney Brooks: Robots will invade our livesRodney Brooks says robots will invade our lives
The Event: TED2003
The Robots: Roomba, PackBot and Kismet
What they do: Roomba, the vacuum cleaner ‘bot, easily navigates around objects and learns where to clean as it goes. More complex is PackBot, also described above, which catalogues local information and has the ability to communicate from areas too dangerous to search for survivors. Also, get another demonstration of Kismet’s ability to react and communicate.
See them in action: At 2:51, see a demonstration of Roomba at work. Watch 5:00, for PackBot. And cut to 11:02 for Kismet’s response to social cues.
And: Rodney Brooks is bringing his newest robot, Baxter, to TED2013.
Dean Kamen: To invent is to giveDean Kamen: To invent is to giveDean Kamen on inventing and giving
The Event: TED2002
The Robot: The Segway
What it does: These robots help you get around, without expending energy, relying on gas or requiring a parking spot. The idea: efficiency in a motorized platform that is the size of a person.
See it in action: Watch it all. Kamen gives his entire talk aboard a Segway.

Stay tuned to the TED Blog for beat-by-beat coverage of TED2013.

Note: This post originally ran as a pre-TED2013 piece. It was updated on February 26, to reflect three new robots appearing on the TED stage in Session 1, “Progress Enigma.”