Speculative fiction is the home of countless machines that fly in space, yet resemble humanoid lifeforms. Scientists are now working on the next generation of robots that will blaze a trail in space by going where humans simply can’t maneuver on their own. Like so many things in the field of space exploration, the descendents of those working on these projects will be the ones to really reap the benefits of this research.
That being said, some scientists and engineers are beginning to consider the possibility of new types of craft that use human pilots while incorporating robotic structures to facilitate planetary exploration. Numerous remotely tele-operated vehicles like the Lunakhod and the Sojourner have already been used with great success to explore extraterrestrial surfaces. The use of human pilots in these past missions would of course been foolish, however, as technology advances it’s somewhat easier to believe that such endeavors in the future may be realistic. Robotics will undoubtedly become increasingly important as space travel becomes commonplace in the years ahead. Automatic piloting aren’t the only thing that these units will be useful for, however. Semiautonomous navigation devices are old news. Treads won’t be able to explore extremely treacherous terrain on rocky worlds. We need to figure out ways to get humans involved in planetary surface exploration.
One viable option to accomplish this may involve hexapod walkers similar to the one shown above. These units would be far more stable over irregular terrain than treads or wheels. Astronauts landing on other planets wouldn’t be able to work with equipment that’s as straightforward as the buggy used on the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions. By using six symmetrical legs, new robotic vehicles could descend vast gorges without tumbling the way conventional vehicles do.
Robotic algorithms can do more than merely pilot units as well. As brain interfaces become safer, astronauts may be able to directly interface with their vehicles. Hexapod legs could actually become extensions of their physical bodies. Some people have proposed constructing piloted robotic vehicles that look like some form of giant humans in order to speed up the learning process. Nevertheless, the human body isn’t exactly a great thing to model a machine after. While the human body might be balanced in its organic form, it wouldn’t really work as a machine. Humans require liquid in the inner ear canal to remain balanced. Hexapod units derive balance from their structure.
Interestingly, not all of a six-legged robot’s legs are necessary to remain upright. If a few of the legs were damaged, it might be able to still move. That makes this design particularly useful for astronauts who would be operating away from technical crews in extremely hazardous environments. Training problems might still be pretty serious, which is why some people have proposed chicken walkers and numerous other sophisticated designs as alternatives.
Industrial robotics have been used in spacecraft rendezvous and docking simulation conditions so these may be the best approach in the future once we figure out how to get humans to planetary bodies. It’s not hard to believe their use will continue to grow as we continue to push the boundaries of space exploration in the future. As we continue moving forward with our space exploration efforts, the involvement of humans should be considered as increases in our technological capabilities are realized. Brain interfaces and walker units may be integral components in these future planetary exploration efforts.
Toralf Boge, & Ou Ma (2011). Using Advanced Industrial Robotics for Spacecraft Rendezvous and Docking simulation Robotics and Automation (ICRA), 1-4 DOI: 10.1109/ICRA.2011.5980583
Wilcox, B. (1992). Robotic vehicles for planetary exploration Applied Intelligence, 2 (2), 181-193 DOI: 10.1007/BF00058762
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Realistic views of robots are usually centered on grappling arms hidden behind safety cages, but Rethink Robotics is working to change that. The Massachusetts-based company produces the Baxter line of robots shown above. These machines are designed to adapt to their local environment so that even unskilled labor can train them to do work. Perhaps equally important, they’re affordable and designed with simplicity in mind.
Factories that already have an extensive physical plant usually have to undergo a painful integration period to get their new robots to work with the current assembly line structure. Baxter works out of the box, and can get acclimated to a workshop in an hour or so. Human presence detectors mean that Baxter always knows that living employees are there. While that naturally means that the unit is safer than less-capable robots, Baxter is also far more capable of working alongside people.
Most robots have to be manipulated from a remote terminal. Baxter actually comes with a display panel and a navigator control. Since it resembles a face, the display is relatively easy for even the uninitiated to get used to. That’s a real bonus for work environments that have a large number of existing employees.
The most amazing aspect of this technology has nothing to do with feats of engineering, however. Baxter and other ‘intelligent’ robots help to keep manufacturing jobs in domestic facilities. Grinding and polishing machines are quickly being sent overseas. Few places can afford to keep blister packaging operations in North America. Products are sometimes even shipped overseas, put into thermoformed trays in a foreign country, and then imported back into the domestic marketplace.
New types of robots can do these jobs without the need for sending goods to foreign countries. That’s a real benefit for companies who have been debating offshoring their operations for some time. In fact, some analysts believe that new manufacturing technologies might even help bring jobs back to domestic marketplaces. While the media has often portrayed robots as devices that steal jobs away from human workers, they might ironically actually be creating plenty of new jobs right here at home.
There are plenty of other benefits that aren’t related to socio-political trends. Offshoring is actually a major environmental problem. Transportation services use a substantial amount of fuel. By keeping manufacturing jobs closer to home, companies can actually reduce their carbon footprint as well as costs. Some businesses might end up investing in robots for these reasons alone.
A revolution is starting to take place in manufacturing. Robots like Baxter are essentially consumer electronics. They can be expected to work out of the box. There’s no reason to assume that future robotic options will be any less dazzling in the near future. Hobbyist machines already started to appear on the shelves in the 1980s. It’s only a matter of time before anyone will be able to purchase his or her own robot. Even local operations will ultimately have the option of taking advantage of this technology.
Consider the plight of a local farm, for instance. Hiring someone to perform repetitive tasks can be very expensive, but a robot doesn’t require a salary. Baxter can’t be washed down, so it’s not necessarily useful for all food preparation jobs. However, even at this moment in time the unit is rated for some. Perhaps a simulated friendly face can actually save or improve industries such as manufacturing and agriculture in the near future.
Data Gloves (or wired gloves or cybergloves), as the name implies, are computer input devices that are worn on the hand like a glove. They utilize motion trackers to translate finger manipulations into electrical signals. In the near future, this technology might revolutionize the way that disabled people are able to access computer resources. For instance, individuals who are currently unable to use a mouse or keyboard might have a better chance with a wired glove. As these products come down in price, it’s fair to assume that regular computer users will be able to afford them as well. Some USB standard devices are already out on the market today. There are other possible commercial applications for these devices as well…the market just needs innovators to lead the way.
The Past and Future of Data Gloves It might be best to call these high tech gloves a reemerging technology. They actually came into vogue in the 1980s. A number of rather ridiculous contraptions were designed around these devices at the time – but this was of course due to the available technologies of the era. The VPL DataGlove was certainly one of the earliest virtual reality products regular people could buy. For a while, many believed they were the future of video games and virtual simulations.
Despite the early promise of the devices, people forgot about them for quite some time. There are a few reasons that wired glove technology has been downplayed in recent years. For instance, many virtual reality machines designed around data gloves were hazardous to people’s health. Certain types of displays caused headaches and seizures. Many wired glove consumer products were also poorly planned early on. Many of you may remember the ill-fated Power Glove for the Nintendo Entertainment System. So there have been some missteps in this field. However, there’s nothing to say that wired glove products need to use 3D displays for successful operation. For that matter, there isn’t even a reason to believe that their future success is dependent upon adoption in the consumer market.
Moving Forward – How Data Gloves Can be Used Some of the most interesting research being done today lies within the field of human-machine interfaces. Rather than applications pertaining only to specialized fields (i.e. rehabilitation), many experts believe that the future for cybergloves is actually quite broad.
Machines or robots in the future might be designed specifically to include glove interfaces. For example, some organizations have focused on creating certain types of robots that lack sophisticated software for organizational tasks. Think of a robot that might be used to assemble a multi-ton piece of equipment that needs to be built to spec. In this type of application, humans would remotely control the robots, using data glove interfaces, as opposed to building software to control the robots. This can reduce the need for sophisticated software that has the potential to fail (and avoid the potential catastrophes that might follow) by allowing a human operator to take control of a system, through the use of a wired glove interface, while capitalizing on the advantages of robotics at the same time. Since computers currently lack the ability to discriminate between different choices, a human operator might actually be superior to a computer in these types of applications. These are the instances when data gloves may be useful.
Alternatively, data gloves can be used in telerobotic operations. For example, telerobotics could give organizations the option to control systems anywhere in the world using localized data gloves. This has significant implications when considered. For instance, what if companies could repair broken down equipment in the sea, space, or even the desert using the devices? Isn’t that better than risking the lives of humans for the same processes? There are lots of possibilities in terms of commercial applications in this area. I’m simply touching on a few just to illustrate the potential that these devices may have in the future.
Another obvious use of these high-tech gloves lies within the area of rehabilitation. People recovering from injuries may be able to relearn how to use certain muscle groups by using these sorts of devices. Some modern rehabilitation systems have actually been built around the devices. Computing applications abound as well…especially in the quest to rid the world of input devices. While it’s far too early to claim that keyboards (or the mouse) are an endangered species, a diverse line of data gloves in the near future could potentially change the computing market in this area.
What are some problems you can imagine data gloves being able to solve in the future?
Fahn, C., & Sun, H. (2010). Development of a Fingertip Glove Equipped with Magnetic Tracking Sensors Sensors, 10 (2), 1119-1140 DOI: 10.3390/s100201119
Yamaura H, Matsushita K, Kato R, & Yokoi H (2009). Development of hand rehabilitation system for paralysis patient – universal design using wire-driven mechanism. Conference proceedings : … Annual International Conference of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society. Conference, 2009, 7122-5 PMID: 19963950
HOSHINO, K. (2006). Dexterous Robot Hand Control with Data Glove by Human Imitation IEICE Transactions on Information and Systems, E89-D (6), 1820-1825 DOI: 10.1093/ietisy/e89-d.6.1820
Dalley, S., Varol, H., & Goldfarb, M. (2012). A Method for the Control of Multigrasp Myoelectric Prosthetic Hands IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering, 20 (1), 58-67 DOI: 10.1109/TNSRE.2011.2175488
Nattapong Tongrod, Teerakiat Kerdcharoen, N. Watthanawisuth, & A. Tuantranont (2010). A low-cost dataglove for Human computer interaction based on ink-jet printed sensors and ZigBee networks International Symposium on Wearable Computers – ISWC, 1-2 DOI: 10.1109/ISWC.2010.5665850
One of the most talked about subjects in robotics today is the uncanny valley hypothesis. So many works of speculative fiction feature robots in relationships with humans that it’s become a cliche, but this idea states that there’s a dip in the graph of human comfort levels when they approach machines that look too much like people. Devices that are disturbingly close to organic life forms often repulse human observers. However, the emotional response becomes far more positive as the machine becomes even closer to humanity.
The term comes from a robotics professor named Masahiro Mori, who referred to the idea as Bukimi no Tani Gensho. This hypothesis was linked to the much earlier essay “On the Psychology of the Uncanny,” which had been completed by Ernst Jentsch in 1906. Even Sigmund Freud‘s 1919 essay “Das Unheimliche” has been linked with the idea that humans are repulsed by devices that are too close to humans.
Several Japanese and Korean companies have built robots that are eerily close to their creators. People are often unsettled when they view images of these androids. Overcoming the uncanny valley opens up a new can of worms. A society in which people are indistinguishable from machinery would be filled with ethical quandaries.
Artificial eyes are a common theme in science fiction. A certain television character from the early 1990s made the idea popular. While there have been a few prototypes in the real world, mechanical ocular implants aren’t regular medical devices just yet. When they come out, however, they will be welcome additions to many ophthalmology programs.
Presbyopia comes from Greek, and the term means old eyes. As adults age, they slowly start to lose their vision. Small muscles bend the clear lens at the front of the eye in a normal individual. However, as they get older, these muscles don’t work quite as well. Patients with these problems are prime candidates for future treatments.
Patients with presbyopia usually get eyeglasses, but many people don’t wish to. They would rather squint. Mechanical eyes would make social stigmas a thing of the past, but ethical guidelines stand in the way of medical science once again. People could very easily interface infrared cameras with their brain. While some people might develop the harmless “x-ray vision” promised in countless old comic book ads, others might use their newfound mechanical powers to collect sensitive information. Privacy issues are already coming to a head today, so one can imagine that cyberization will only continue to shine the spotlight on privacy in the years ahead.
University of Granada researchers have developed an artificial cerebellum (a biologically-inspired adaptive microcircuit) that controls a robotic arm with human-like precision. The cerebellum is the part of the human brain that controls the locomotor system and coordinates body movements.
To date, although robot designers have achieved very precise movements, such movements are performed at very high speed, require strong forces and are power consuming. This approach cannot be applied to robots that interact with humans, as a malfunction might be potentially dangerous.
To solve this challenge, the researchers have implemented a new cerebellar spiking model that adapts to corrections and stores their sensorial effects; in addition, it records motor commands to predict the action or movement to be performed by the robotic arm. This cerebellar model allows the user to articulate a state-of-the-art robotic arm with extraordinary mobility.
The developers of the new cerebellar model have obtained a robot that performs automatic learning by extracting the input layer functionalities of the brain cortex. Furthermore, they have developed two control systems that enable accurate and robust control of the robotic arm during object handling.
The synergy between the cerebellum and the automatic control system enables robot’s adaptability to changing conditions i.e. the robot can interact with humans. The biologically-inspired architectures used in this model combine the error training approach with predictive adaptive control.
The designers of this model are Silvia Tolu, Jesús Garrido and Eduardo Ros Vidal, at the University of Granada Department of Computer Architecture and Technology, and the University of Almería researcher Richard Carrillo.
Source: University of Granada
Luque NR, Garrido JA, Carrillo RR, Tolu S, & Ros E (2011). Adaptive cerebellar spiking model embedded in the control loop: context switching and robustness against noise. International journal of neural systems, 21 (5), 385-401 PMID: 21956931
As people continue to struggle with problems involving organ donation, a few robotic engineers continue to push the boundaries between humanity and machinery. A recent report in Nature (cited below) showed that two patients were able to overcome some aspects of their paralysis by way of an implant. Reaching and grabbing motions were possible by way of a carefully designed robotic arm. One individual involved in the study was able to enjoy a drink by herself. She didn’t seem to require assistance outside of the prosthetic limb.
The Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, NPR (audio interview below) and other blogs/media outlets reported on this last week but I wanted to mull over the implications of this before posting about this on here. Here are my initial thoughts.
NPR Interview: Reporting in Nature, researchers write that two individuals, both paralyzed by stroke, made reach-and-grasp movements using a thought-controlled robotic arm. One participant was even able to a sip a drink by herself. Neuroengineer Dr. Leigh Hochberg discusses the paper and the ongoing trial.
The Potential Upside:
This provides real hope for stroke victims who suffer from the loss of a limb. Everyone wants to be independent. This is simply a fact of life. For better or worse, there are a number of serious ethical and philosophical questions that come with robotic implants and organ donation. However, one might suggest that programs such as these are far less concerning.
They don’t interfere with any concepts of life. While futurists might like to make suggestions about the path of humanity after total industrialization, it isn’t too hard to assume that this is only a positive aspect. Most people probably wouldn’t put too much thought into the implications of robotic limbs that are used only for medical purposes.
However, patients are surely glad to be able to receive this feeling of independence once again. While one might be able to receive an organic heart or legs, it wouldn’t be easy to simply graft a foreign limb onto a different body. In fact, that might come with far more complicated ethical questions than a mechanical one ever would.
The Potential Downside:
I’m hesitant to even mention these but there were a few things that came to mind once I got over the initial “cool” factor.
How might the military use this technology in the future? What is the potential that this might be hacked in the future to control humans (that’s what led to Tuesday’s post). These are the two immediate issues that concern me.
Then of course there is the problem scientists have with understanding how the brain actually works. It still surprises them on a regular basis and we have a long, long way to go in this regard. The other issue of course is overcoming the human body’s reaction to invasive brain implants. As with this advancement avoe, the researchers are trying to mitigate negative reactions via the use of bio-friendly materials (as opposed to gold/silicon). Much research is being done in both invasive and non-invasive interfaces but the results still leave much to be desired. The problem isn’t necessarily with the research being done but rather the fragmentation that is occurring within the scientific community on this. There is more than one way to “skin a cat” when it comes to replacement limbs and brain interfaces. For example work is being done to determine how to make replacement limbs work via neural stimuli while similar work is being done using robotics as we’ve seen above.
This is a step in the right direction. The start of any ground-breaking science is going to be rough-going early on but progress is almost always a good thing. I have high hopes for this and believe we’re moving in the right direction. I don’t want to take away from this important research at all. As I’ve written on here frequently, I believe this is just another step towards the next phase of human evolution. As always, feel free to share your thoughts below.
Hochberg, L., Bacher, D., Jarosiewicz, B., Masse, N., Simeral, J., Vogel, J., Haddadin, S., Liu, J., Cash, S., van der Smagt, P., & Donoghue, J. (2012). Reach and grasp by people with tetraplegia using a neurally controlled robotic arm Nature, 485 (7398), 372-375 DOI: 10.1038/nature11076
Gaining access to the inner workings of a neuron in the living brain offers a wealth of useful information: its patterns of electrical activity, its shape, even a profile of which genes are turned on at a given moment. However, achieving this entry is such a painstaking task that it is considered an art form; it is so difficult to learn that only a small number of labs in the world practice it. Read More →
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Most people interested in futurism have already heard that Korean prisons have been experimenting with robotic prison guards. Robots have largely replaced humans in extremely repetitive jobs throughout the world. Even people that lack a general interest in robotics have seen the mechanical arms used in automobile factories. While prison detail is rather repetitive, it isn’t the sort of thing that usually gets associated with automation. Read More →
Many articles that focus on the increasing similarities between organic life and machines focus purely on the ways that humans are becoming increasingly mechanized. It can be assumed that people will become even more like machines as the collective human consciousness moves towards a single technological singularity. However, what might be more startling is the way in which machines are often beginning to resemble other animals aside from humans. Read More →