Where’s my robot?

As a kid who grew up obsessed with robots, I have to wonder why I’m still mowing my lawn or grocery shopping. Where’s my personal robot? Perhaps the same place my flying car got lost. Oh well.

More seriously, we are on the verge of some very cool robotic things. I had the opportunity to look into robotics as part of my company’s Advanced Concepts Team a few years back and was amazed by products just over the horizon. Several recent articles highlight this.

Researchers at Google have used machine learning methodologies to develop an autonomous system for learning legged locomotion in real world environments with minimal human interaction. At Osaka University, researchers created PedestriANS, a bipedal robot that can change the movements of its legs in response to changes in its environment, allowing it to walk on things like gravel and grass. Both of these are moving us away from rolling or clumsy bipedal robots to devices that walk like humans. I won’t even go into the artificial intelligence that would animate a robot that fits the model Hollywood instilled in my child’s brain, as that is a separate conversation previously raised here, here and here. But we are getting closer and closer to the idea of robot aides that walk beside us.

Perhaps even more exciting are the advances being made in robotic limbs. The problem has always been the control of such limbs, which inevitably requires a mind-machine interface if the robot limb is to ever replace the natural limb in a realistic sense. University of Michigan researchers have developed a major advance in such mind-controlled prosthetics for amputees. They’ve tapped faint, latent signals from arm nerves and amplified them to enable real-time, intuitive, finger-level control of a robotic hand. This is a giant step forward from the clumsy research devices previously developed. It seems it will be very soon when amputees can return to the world with artificial limbs that allow functionality previously reserved for science fiction.

Now if somebody will just get to work on those flying cars!

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