There are now 1 million industrial robots toiling around the world, and Japan is where they’re the thickest on the ground. It has 295 of these electromechanical marvels for every 10 000 manufacturing workers—a robot density almost 10 times the world average and nearly twice that of Singapore (169), South Korea (164), and Germany (163).

Illustration: Mike Vella

Although the top three countries are in Asia, Europe gets the regional title as the epicenter of global automation; it has a robot density of 50, compared to 31 in the Americas and 27 in the Asia/Pacific region.

IEEE Spectrum computed the robot density for 67 nations in all, using data from the International Federation of Robotics and the International Labour Organization.

Alexey Dudoladov/iStockphoto & Chad Anderson/iStockphoto

By 2011, the world’s industrial robot population is expected to rise to 1.2 million. Which countries these new robots will call home—and how the machine-to-human balance will change—remains to be seen.

Illustration: Mike Vella
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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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