As if robotics weren’t advancing fast enough, what with robotic astronauts or androids that can be 3D printed, it seems that DARPA has developed a robotic hand that can perform complex, dextrous tasks. But to make matters worse, this particular robot can be cheaply produced. Up until now, cost has remained a factor in the creation of robotic limbs that are capable of matching human skill. But from now on, we could very well be seeing robots replacing skilled labor on all fronts!
As we’re all no doubt aware, one of the key differences between humans and other mammals is the use of tools. These not only allowed our earliest ancestors the ability to alter their environment and overcome their disadvantages when faced with larger, deadlier creatures. They also allowed homo sapiens as a species to gain the upper hand against other species of hominids, those who’s brains and hands were not as developed as our own.
So what happens when a robot is capable of matching a human being when it comes to a complicated task – say, like changing a tire – and at a cost most businesses can afford? To add insult to injury, the robot was able to conduct this task using tools specifically designed for a human being. But of course, the purpose was not to demonstrate that a robot could replace a human worker, but that it was possible to create more dextrous prosthetics for the sake of replacing lost limbs.
Ordinarily, such machinery would run a person a good $10,000, but DARPA’s new design is estimated at a comparatively modest $3000. This was made possible by the use of consumer-grade tech in the construction process, such as cameras from cellphones. And in addition to being able to work with tools, the robot can perform more intricate maneuvers, such as handling an object as small as a set of tweezers.
However, DARPA was also quick to point out that the robot shown in the video featured below is actually an older model. Since its creation, they have set their sights on loftier goals than simple tool use, such as a robot that can identify and defuse Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Much like many of their robotic projects, such as the Legged Squad Support System (LS3), this is part of DARPA’s commitment to developing robots that will assist future generations in the US army.
So if you’re a member of a pit crew, you can rest easy for now. You’re job is safe… for the moment. But if you’re a member of a bomb squad, you might be facing some robotic competition in the near future. Who knows, maybe that’s a good thing. No one likes to be replaced, but if you’re facing a ticking bomb, I think most people would be happier if the robot handled it!
And in the meantime, check out the video of the robotic hand in action:
Twenty-five years ago, Los Angeles magazine envisioned what the world would look like in the current decade. And unlike Blade Runner, they avoided the cool but standard science fiction allegories – like massive billboards, flying cars and sentient robots – and went straight for the things that seemed entirely possible by contemporary standards.
The cover story of the magazine’s April 3, 1988 edition showed a futuristic downtown L.A. crisscrossed with electrically charged, multi-tiered freeways permeated by self-driving cars. The article itself then imagined a day in the life of the fictional Morrow family of the L.A. suburb Granada Hills, as “profiled” by the magazine in 2013 by science fiction writer Nicole Yorkin.
Ironically, the magazine did not envision that it would one day go out of business, or that print media would one day be lurching towards extinction. Nevertheless, the fictional article and the world it detailed were interesting reading. Little wonder then why, earlier this month, the LA Times along with an engineering class at USC, revisited the archives to assess what it predicted correctly versus incorrectly.
Together, professor Jerry Lockenour and his class made a list of the hits and misses, and what they found paints a very interesting picture of how we predict the future and how its realization so often differs from what we expect. Of the major predictions to be found in LA of the 2013, as well as in the lives of the Morrow family (get it?), here is what they got right:
Smart-Houses: In the article, the Morrows are said to begin every morning when their “Smart House” automatically turns on. This consists of all the appliances activating and preparing them breakfast, and no doubt turning on all the environmental controls and opening the shades to get the temperature and ambient lighting just right.
While this isn’t the norm for the American family yet, the past few years have proved a turning point for home devices hooking up with the Internet, to become more programmable and serve our daily needs. And plans are well under way to find a means of networking them all together so they function as one “smart” unit.
Self-Driving Cars: The writers of the article predicted that by 2013, cars would come standard with computers that control most of the settings, along with GPS systems for navigation. They also predict self-driving cars, which Google and Chevy are busy working on. In addition to using clean, alternative energy sources, these cars are expected to be able t0 self-drive, much in the same way a pilot puts their plane on auto-pilot. Drivers will also be able to summon the cars to their location, connect wirelessly to the internet, and download apps and updates to keep their software current.
But of course, they got a few things wrong as well. Here they are, the blots on their predictive record:
Homeprinted newspapers: The article also predicts that each morning the Morrows would begin their day with a freshly printed newspaper, as rendered by their laser-jet printer. These would be tailor-made, automatically selecting the latest news feeds that would be of most interest to them. What this failed to anticipate was the rise in e-media and the decline of printed media, though hardly anyone would fault them for this. While news has certainly gotten more personal, the use of tablets, ereaders and smartphones is the way the majority of people now read their selected news.
Robot servants and pets: In what must have seemed like a realistic prediction, but which now comes across as a sci-fi cliche, the Morrows’ home was also supposed to come equipped with a robotic servant that had a southern accent. The family’s son was also greeted every morning by a robot dog that would come to play with him. While we are certainly not there yet, the concept of anthropomorphic robot assistants is becoming more real every day. Consider, for example, the Kenshiro robot (pictured at right), the 3D printed android, or the proposed Roboy, the Swiss-made robotic child. With all of these in the works, a robotic servant or pet doesn’t seem so far-fetched does it?
Between these four major predictions and which came to be true, we can see that the future is not such an easy thing to predict. In addition to always being in motion, and subject to acceleration, slowing and sudden changes, the size and shape of it can be very difficult to pin down. No one can say for sure what will be realized and when, or if any of the things we currently take for granted will even be here tomorrow.
For instance, during the 1960’s and 70’s, it was common practice for futurists and scientists to anticipate that the space race, which had culminated with humans setting foot on the moon in 1969, would continue into the future, and that humanity would be seeing manned outposts on the moon by and commercial space flight by 1999. No one at the time could foresee that a more restrictive budget environment, plus numerous disasters and a thawing of the Cold War, would slow things down in that respect.
In addition, most predictions that took place before the 1980’s completely failed to predict the massive revolution caused by miniaturization and the explosion in digital technology. Many futurist outlooks at the time predicted the rise in AI, but took it for granted that computers would still be the size of a desk and require entire rooms dedicated to their processors. The idea of a computer that could fit on top of a desk, let alone on your lap or in the palm of your hand, must have seemed farfetched.
What’s more, few could predict the rise of the internet before the late 1980’s, or what the realization of “cyberspace” would even look like. Whereas writer’s like William Gibson not only predicted but coined the term, he and others seemed to think that interfacing with it would be a matter of cool neon-graphics and avatars, not the clean, page and site sort of interface which it came to be.
And even he failed to predict the rise of such things as email, online shopping, social media and the million other ways the internet is tailored to suit the average person and their daily needs. When it comes right down to it, it is not a dangerous domain permeated by freelance hacker “jockeys” and mega-corporations with their hostile counter-intrusion viruses (aka. Black ICE). Nor is it the social utopia promoting open dialogue and learning that men like Bill Gates and Al Gore predicted it would be in the 1990’s. If anything, it is an libertarian economic and social forum that is more democratic and anarchistic than anyone could have ever predicted.
But of course, that’s just one of many predictions that came about that altered how we see things to come. As a whole, the entire thing has come to be known for being full of shocks and surprises, as well as some familiar faces. In short, the future is an open sea, and there’s no telling which way the winds will blow, or what ships will make it to port ahead of others. All we can do is wait and see, and hopefully trust in our abilities to make good decisions along the way. And of course, the occasional retrospective and issue congratulations for the things we managed to get right doesn’t hurt either!
Robotics has come a long way in recent years. Why, just take a look at NASA’s X1 Robotic exoskeleton, the Robonaut, robotaxis and podcars, the mind-controlled EMT robot suit, Stompy the giant robot, Kenshiro and Roboy, and the 3D printed android. I suppose it was only a matter of time before the world of fashion looked at this burgeoning marketplace and said “me too!”
And here are just some of the first attempts to merge the two worlds: First up there’s the robot mannequin, a means of making window shopping more fun for consumers. Known as the MarionetteBot, this automaton has already made several appearances in shops in Japan and can expected to be making debut appearances across Asia, in North America and the EU soon enough!
Check out the video below to see the robot in action. Designed by the Japanese robotics company United Arrows, the mannequin uses a Kinect to capture and help analyze the movements of a person while a motor moves a total of 16 wires to match the person’s pose. Though it is not yet fast or limber enough to perfectly mimic the moves of a person, the technology shows promise, and has provided many a window-shopper with plenty of entertainment!
And next up, there’s the equally impressive FitBot, a shape-shifting mannequin that is capable of emulating thousands of body types. Designed by the British virtual shopping company Fits.Me, the FitBot is designed to help take some of the guesswork out of online shopping, where a good 25% of purchases are regularly returned because they were apparently the wrong size.
But with the FitBots, along with a virtual fitting room, customers will be able to see right away what the clothes will look like on them. The only downside is you will have to know your exact measurements, because that’s what the software will use to adjust the bot’s body. Click here to visit the company’s website and see how the virtual fitting room works, and be sure to check out there video below:
What does the future hold for the fashion industry and high-tech? Well, already customers are able to see what they look like using Augmented Reality technology displays, and can get pictures thanks to tablet and mobile phone apps that can present them with the image before making a purchase. Not only does it take a lot of the legwork out of the process, its much more sanitary as far as trying on clothes is concerned. And in a world where clothing can be printed on site, it would be downright necessary.
But in the case of online shopping, its likely to take the form of a Kinect device in your computer, which scans your body and lets you know what size to get. How cool/lazy would that be? Oh, and as for those AR displays that put you in the clothes you want? They should come with a disclaimer: Objects in mirror are less attractive than they appear!
It’s no secret that in recent years, the technology behind 3D printing has been growing by leaps and bounds, and igniting a lot of imaginations in the process. And it seems that with every passing day, new possibilities are emerging, both real and speculative. Some are interesting, some are frightening, and some are just downright mind-blowing. Consider this small sampling of what’s emerged most recently and decide for yourself…
First off, it now seems that there is a design for an android that you can download, print and assemble in the comfort of your home – assuming you have access to a 3D printer. Designer Gael Langevin, who calls his project InMoov, has spent the last year perfecting the concept for a voice-controlled android that can be constructed from parts generated by a 3D printer. And not only that, he has made the entire project freely available via open source so that any DIY’er can print it on their own.
Starting with the android’s right hand, Langevin’s idea quickly took off and morphed into a the full-body concept that is now available. Designing the bot with Blender software and printing it on a 3D Touch using ABS plastic as the material, the end product is a fully animated machine that responds to voice control and can “see” and hold objects. And as you can see from the video below, it looks quite anthropomorphic:
Then came the announcement of something even more radical which also sounds like it might be ripped from the pages of a science fiction novel. Just yesterday, a team of researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland announced that they used a new printing technique to deposit live stem cells onto a surface in a specific pattern. This is a step in the direction of using stem cells as an “ink” to fashion artificial organs from a 3D printer, which is their ultimate goal.
The process involves suspending the cells in a “bio-ink,” which they were then able to squeeze out as tiny droplets in a variety of shapes and sizes. To produce clumps of cells, they printed out the cells first and then overlaid those with cell-free bio-ink, forming spheroids, which the cells began grouping together inside. Using this process, they were able to create entire cultures of tissue which – depending on the size of the spheroids – could be morphed into specific types of tissue.
In short, this technique could one day be used to print out artificial tissues, such as skin, muscles and organs, that behave like the real thing. It could even serve to limit animal testing for new drug compounds, allowing them to be tested on artificially-generated human tissue. According to Jason King, business development manager at Roslin Cellab and one of the research partners: “In the longer term, [it could] provide organs for transplant on demand, without the need for donation and without the problems of immune suppression and potential organ rejection.”
And last in the lineup is perhaps the most profound use proposed for 3D printing yet. According to the European Space Agency, this relatively new technology could turn moon dust into moon housing. You read that right! It seems that a London-based design firm named Foster+Partners is planning to collaborate with the European Space Agency to build structures on the Moon using the regolith from the surface.
The process is twofold: in the first step, the inflatable scaffolding would be manufactured on Earth and then transported to the Moon. Once there, a durable shell composed of regolith and constructed by robotically-driven 3D printers would be laid overtop to complete the structures. The scheme would not only take advantage of raw materials already being present on the lunar surface, but offers a highly scalable and efficient model for construction.
Should the plan be put into action, a research expedition or colony would first be established in the southern polar regions of the Moon where sunlight is constant. From there, the scaffolding and components of the printing “foundry” would be shuttled to the moon where they would then be assembled and put to work. Each house, once complete, would be capable of accommodating four people, with the possibility of expansion should the need arise. For now, the plan is still in the R&D phase, with the company looking to create a smaller version using artificial regolith in a vacuum chamber.
Impressed yet? I know I am! And it seems like only yesterday I was feeling disillusioned with the technology thanks to the people at an organization – that shall remain nameless – who wanted to print out “Wiki-weapon” versions of the AR-15, despite the fact that it was this very weapon that was used by the gunman who murdered several small children in the town of Newton, Connecticut before turning the weapon on himself.
Yes, knowing that this technology could be creating life-saving organs, helpful androids and Lunar housing goes a long way to restoring my faith in humanity and its commitment to technological progress. I guess that’s how technology works isn’t it, especially in this day and age. You don’t like what it’s being used for, wait five minutes!