Nothing symbolizes the future quite like robotics. The dream that machines will someday relieve us of burdensome daily chores has persisted for decades, from the stories of Issac Asimov to TV's Lost in Space. But here in 2007, helpful robots still seem a long way off. So when an article begins by stating that "[w]ithin a decade, cars could start themselves on highways," it's easy to dismiss it as just more of the same. But this week's news suggests that such a future could be approaching.

Rise of the machines
To demonstrate the amount of progress that occurred in robotics this week, let's first turn to Europe, where scientists reported creating a "swarm-bot." Its individual robotic components can communicate with one another, configuring themselves into a variety of objects of almost any size.

According to the researchers, near-term jobs for these autonomous machines might include searching for oil in the deep ocean. That might greatly interest large oil companies such as ExxonMobil or Chevron.

In a separate European project, scientists announced that they were building robots that "learn from humans and respond in a socially and emotionally appropriate manner."

The robots rely on feedback from cameras, audio, and sensors, rapidly processed through an artificial neural network.

In the same arena, neuroscientists at MIT announced this past week that they had created a computer model of the brain that has learned to detect and classify objects. It's called a visual search engine, and its designers aim to make it flexible and responsive enough to distinguish between cars "at different angles, positions, and poses, and under different lighting conditions."

Among the companies likely paying attention to such advances are Volkswagen, which is already doing a great deal of work in the field of automotive robotics, and iRobot (NASDAQ:IRBT), whose PackBot robots could become even better by quickly deciphering between friend and foe on the battlefield.

Power to the processors
Besides their value for robotic applications, visual search engines will also help companies such as Google, Yahoo!, and Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) better fulfill users' requests for photos, video clips, and other visual markers on the Web.

If this past week is any guide, these engines will only continue to get better. As I mentioned last week, Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) has already demonstrated a single chip with 80 cores, capable of a trillion operations per second. Among the ideal applications for this specialized chip: real-time video search, sorted by spoken phrases or images.

From 420 years to four months
This week's advances in the life sciences were no less impressive. According to this report in Computerworld, by employing thousands of networked computers working in tandem, scientists were able to do in four months what would have taken 420 years on a single computer. In one specific case, researchers were able to investigate 80,000 compounds each hour in search of a drug to better combat malaria.

Significantly, this process is expected to further accelerate, reducing the cost of searching for new drugs. Today, it takes as much as 12 years and costs between $800 million and $1.2 billion to develop a new drug. Pharmaceutical companies exploring grid computing's potential include GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) and Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ).

In an independent pharmaceutical development, Yale University researchers revealed that they were one step closer to controlling the structure of an unusual class of proteins called beta-peptides, which offer advantages over conventional protein-based drugs.

Beta-peptides are less expensive to manufacture, and they break down more slowly in the body, allowing for more effective and longer-lasting drugs. As an added benefit, beta-peptides also aren't easily degraded by enzymes in the stomach, perhaps allowing a new class of drugs to be taken orally.

As it stands right now, Bayer AG is among the few companies producing protein therapeutics, but as beta-peptides become better understood, this number could increase significantly.

Wi-Fi and Web go live
This week's health-care advances weren't all relegated to future pharmaceutical applications. In Britain, the London Clinic rolled out "an asset tracking system" that uses existing Wi-Fi networks and wireless chip technology. The clinic is using technology from Ekahau, a Finnish company, but I've also written about how 3M (NYSE:MMM) is using radio frequency identification tags (RFID) to help hospitals better manage their inventory.

Separately, Duke University and IBM (NYSE:IBM) unveiled the "Healthview Portal," a new website designed to help 500,000 patients to pay medical bills, schedule appointments, view their personal medical histories, and obtain electronic prescriptions.

Foolish final word
In a roundabout way, all of this brings us back to robots. I began this article by suggesting that self-driving cars might be feasible within a decade. With advances in robotics and algorithms, faster computers, grid computing, Wi-Fi/RFID networks, and a ubiquitous World Wide Web, all of the necessary components of this vision seem to be converging.

I don't expect individual drivers to happily surrender control of their automobiles, but I do expect that U.S. soldiers will be glad to let robots drive supply convoys through dangerous territory. Shortly thereafter, I wouldn't be surprised if companies such as FedEx or UPS began investigating robotic vehicles to decrease costs and increase productivity.

Sound unlikely? Perhaps, but just a year ago, the notion of people regrowing severed fingertips would have sounded equally implausible. As this story from last week demonstrates, it may have already come to pass.

Of course, this is all just one week's work, but it tells me that the future is approaching faster than most people realize. Investors should act accordingly.

Check out last week's progress.

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Glaxo, Johnson & Johnson, and UPS are Income Investor picks. FedEx and Yahoo! are Stock Advisor selections. 3M, Intel, and Microsoft are Inside Value picks. iRobot and Intuitive Surgical are Rule Breakers selections.

Fool contributor Jack Uldrich is the author of two books on nanotechnology, and recently completed his latest book which deals with the exponential growth of a number of different technologies. He owns stock in iRobot, Intel, and IBM. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.