What do robots feel like? Most likely the same as the touch of a microwave or that cold, hard casserole our aunt brought last Christmas. A robots metallic body is one of the most recognizable characteristics, but the future could be much more familiar than we think.
A team of Harvard researchers in 3-D printing, mechanical engineering, and microfluidics have made the first soft robot nicknamed The Octobot. Inspired by the octopus's ability to have strength and dexterity without a skeleton of its own.
The key to creating a soft body was avoiding any rigid components such as metal or wires. Instead, chemical reactions fuel the body, put more simply a robot’s muscles instead of its bones, anyone who has cancelled a gym membership can relate. It’s a big step forward to creating more advanced soft robots.
Does a robot with no metal parts change our experience with them? If something is closer to our physical makeup, do we feel differently towards it? Would a soft robot that can crawl, swim and interact with us be different than a metallic one? Would we be jealous if a robot had softer skin than us? Would they let us borrow their hand cream?
Did you know sweating happens for reasons other than looking really shiny? When we use our muscles, sweating helps regulate body temperature by cooling us down. But what about when robots produce high torque demands on their parts? At the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS), Japanese researchers presented a humanoid robot that “sweats” water straight out of it’s robo bod.
Professor Masayuki Inaba added a cooling system to a musculoskeletal humanoid named Kengoro. Since Kengoro’s body is already filled with circuit boards, gears and 108 motors, they wanted to use the robot’s skeletal structure as a coolant-delivery system that leaks water out through the frame. In other words, Kengoro sweats.
Kengoro can run for half a day by hydrating itself, which proves this method works three times better than air cooling. Kengoro can also run at full power longer and can do push-ups for 11 minutes straight without burning out its motors. Kinda like that kid in gym class that makes everyone look like marshmallows. Does this human inspired survival factor change our view of how robots should perform tasks? Would implementing these types of structural challenges help robotics education teach us more about our own bodies? What would be the benefit from that?
Unless you grew up in the 70s, doing the “robot” might not spark memories of anything other than a lifeless metal body. But Cynthia Breazeal, a roboticist at MIT’s Media Lab, believes their newest robot Jibo can entertain and help busy family members harmonize information into their daily lives. Hopefully not repeating our parents generation of "how do I turn this thing on" again.
As is the case now with many robots being developed for homes, Breazeal wants Jibo to go beyond question/answer exchanges, they want more human engagement. For example, Jibo can alert parents of important events, snap photos at social gatherings and read interactive stories to kids and laugh with them. Even helping grandparents use the web without a traditional computer can be done with simple voice commands, which can be a sneaky way to find out what they’re getting you for Christmas.
But is this what we want as humans? Robots giggling at their own jokes sounds entertaining. But is that necessary for a pleasant experience?
Breazeal opened Jibo to developers to expand its capabilities and usefulness over time. What kind of human engagement does Jibo need to perform to really be useful? How is it different than your well-connected smartphone? Does the novelty of entertaining reactions wear off eventually?
Bubbly cheese, rich tasty red sauce, and a heavenly spread of veggies and meats. Sounds like a classic mouth-watering slice of pizza. Now have that made by robots? Bon Appétit. Yes, if you order from Silicon Valley's Zume Pizza, that is.
Zume is one of a growing number of food-tech firms using software and robots to prepare food.
"We're going to eliminate boring, repetitive, dangerous jobs.." says co-founder Alex Garden, a former Microsoft manager.
The robots will eventually prep the dough, add cheese and toppings, take pizzas out of the oven, cut them into slices and deliver them. Imagine tipping a robot?
Zume's founders says the roughly 50 employees will be moved into new jobs.
But history has shown that not all new automated work is beneficial to employees. Last year, Wal-Mart recently cut 7,000 jobs due to automation and fast-food chain Wendy’s made similar changes to their workforce.
But fear not! Robots doing all our work on a mass scale isn’t anytime soon. Ken Goldberg, director of Berkeley’s Automation Lab at the University of California believes robots still, “struggle with irregular tasks that require fine motor skills, judgment and taste”
Can humans and robots be more efficient and beneficial to everyone? What are some examples of employees being replaced by automation on a mass scale? What were some of the benefits and disadvantages?
The general opinion of robotic companions is that they should be helpful to people. But what about sensitive circumstances that requires extra care and attention? Enter social robots.
LuxAI is a startup that focuses on security, reliability and trust. They’re building what they call “social robots” that can assist individuals who need educational or health support. The robots have so far been programmed to work with kids on their vocabulary and stroke patients that benefit from simulated exercises that healthcare professionals would perform themselves.
LuxAI’s CEO Pouyan Ziafati says programming their social robots must be easy to program to be a realistic factor in rehabilitation. “They need an interface by which they can program the robot intuitively and naturally" Which is why Ziafati’s team is using Android software and keeping it open source for schools to use in the future. Which sounds way more appealing than going the Apple way, possibly losing a headphone jack.
LuxAI’s software was utilized by non-IT users within 20 minutes. Reducing the learning curve makes them truly family friendly since they can be specialized for each individual without dependency on instructors.
The future seems to be headed towards all members of the family handling tech, not just kids anymore.
What will a teacher’s role be in school if software is so easy to learn? Would workshop content change if robots are programmed more easily?