Robotics

Ever since I was a small child I had an affinity towards robotics whether it was in science fiction or in  the real world.  I can recall always being drawn to anime that included mecha designs, whether it was Transformers, Macross/Robotech, and Voltron to more humanoid robotic art direction such as Silverhawks, Star Wars and others I can’t even recall names to.  And yet even though I always felt that I wasn’t the only one who shared my passion, I found it very difficult, even to this day to find anyone who shares this interest outside of Transformers within my circle of friends and acquaintances.

Science fiction has warned us about murderous robots like those in the Terminator series, which I thoroughly enjoyed watching, yet today the field of robotics has improved so much that it still is hard to believe a terminator could in fact take over the world.  In some ways, if a robocalypse would ever happen, I feel that the android armies would be governed by humans; which to me seems more frightening than that of a robot controlled army.  I feel this way because I have seen so many advancements in the field that allow my imagination to wander into the abyss.

Fortunately, there are two sides to what I see, and the positive outlook seems even more promising as there have been many success stories.

This article (work in progress) is meant for me to collect and organize the many different branches of robotics that I discover.

Kuratas Battle Mech from Suidobashi Heavy Industry houses a pilot within its torso and is fully operational.

Natural mimicry makes me dream, but the reality is, some of the inventions are startlingly similar to real life fauna; not so much in appearance, but in behavior and movement. One particular robot comes to mind every time I now think of robots.  Developed by Festo, a robot that flies like a bird with flapping wings always sends chills down my spine (the kind I like). Even more impressive is the simplicity of the invention, the low power usage and light weight makes me wonder why this prototype hasn’t made it to store shelves yet. Considering the low cost of mini toy helicopters and other sorts of flying toys, I find it hard to believe they haven’t thought about it.

Another field I find interesting is prosthetics. Aside from the amazing advancements in the field, one of the most admirable revelations is of the vast amount of companies, governments, and researchers working towards cybernetic integration through different approaches producing heartwarming outcomes. But I also believe that there are more reasons than to help those who have lost limbs or born without, as the achievements in one branch of robotics often stem out to the entire field in ways that are both frightening and great.  The prosthetics that are developed today aren’t suggesting cyborgs are an eventual reality, but are already here today in so many ways. I’ve seen examples of robot arms being fused to human nervous systems, replacement fake eyes that are secretly cameras, and frontier technology which sends images to the brain which will eventually solve blindness for those who aren’t as lucky.  This is an exciting world to live in. The reality of robotics is that it ties together a variety of fields such as neuroscience, psychology, biology, and chemistry; not just computer science and mechanics.  Today’s advancements in science are so great, science fiction such as Star Trek: TNG seems out of date in some ways.

Continued research on controlling robotic arms with nuero-activity was propelled with what I discovered years ago with a monkey that surprised its researchers by moving a robot arm without moving its own.  One thing I wonder about is if anyone is working on developing a method for animals to communicate with humans using a neural implant, much like the one used for manipulating robotic arms.  This summer, scientists have come to an agreement that animals are conscious. It is known that many animals cannot mimic our language  due to their voice box not being similar to our own, but that they may understand us when we speak to them. I hypothesize that it is possible for an animal to consciously imitate human language digitally using a neural implant to respond in a method we can understand linguistically; much like a mute who understands a human voice, and can respond using sign language or in writing using the same cognitive reasoning we all share.  Animals have shown to respond and provide answers to simple questions and math problems by training them to respond in a manner we understand, but can they respond with real words if we gave them the ability to speak our language? Could we train them to think of a word and have a machine deduce that thought by retrieving the sound file from a database, and play that word to us?  Much like the comical depiction made on the Simpsons with Homer’s brother creating a device that translates a baby’s sounds into recognizable language, it doesn’t seem so far fetched with the technology we have today; with the ingenuity of our world’s most brilliant minds.

Another recent breakthrough is the move away from traditional mechanics in robotics towards using synthetic material that can be manipulated to mimic organic structures.  Researchers from Harvard designed this bendy robot with the ability to camouflage itself as well. When first watching the video of the robot, I immediately recalled a Nova program that focused on cuttlefish, particularly about their ability to camouflage themselves and the way they achieve it.  I wondered if humans could ever mimic such an astounding ability at that time, and with great ingenuity Harvard succeeded to do it.  Because the technology is seemingly simple in application, the robotics industry will likely model Harvard’s method not only to mimic synthetic muscles for a humanoid skeletal structure using this new technology, but will also be able to produce a skin that can render its robot invisible by scanning its surroundings and painting its synthetic cells internally mimicking its environment. Considering how small pixels on digital displays are today, it shouldn’t be too hard to believe that this tech can be propelled to such a feat.  I am not familiar with the process of manufacturing this type of robot, but considering the material is inexpensive and our ability to manufacture product is so efficient, I can hypothesize without much scrutiny as to the realistic outcomes that we could see in the very near future.  And because the robotic structure is so simple in design, I can’t imagine it being too difficult to incorporate a scalable approach to assembling an android with this technology.

Right now, the prototype is a bit humorous to watch as it walks, but I can see how its design can be integrated onto a skeletal structure acting as muscles, possibly derived from different materials than that of the prototype.

Expanding upon my interest in robots and nature, I find myself hopeful for the future when I come across stories of robotic solutions for natural disasters brought upon by human intervention.  today I came across a story reported by BBC introducing the efforts of a group at Heriot Watt University in Scotland who are working on creating a swarm of autonomous undersea robots who’s goals are to repair coral reefs that are too deep for divers to regularly visit and have been damaged by deep sea trawling. I have growing concern about the welfare of underwater habitats and finding that there are efforts to restore them by individuals who are much more capable than I would have envisioned is reassuring; innovation and awareness are key for a sustainable future. Another report I found on the subject shares the same finding but in more detail.  This type of application of robotics is not precautionary, but rather a response to damaged habitat by industry neglect for the environment. It reminds me of the efforts of Cesar Herada with his robotic inventions geared towards oil cleanup.  It is interesting to see when industry tries to cover up its issues from the public, providing false reassurances, that someone with ingenuity, and the will to see beyond false pretenses, produces real world solutions that are both realistic and imaginative. Not only do the ideas come to life, but are robust enough to provide other fields with solutions that seemed to have difficult problems to overcome.  Fortunately, I am not the only one who sees this, and public crowd-source funding has proven that many people who care enough about the environment are willing to back the financial burden to change the course of destructive industry towards a safer more sustainable management of industry.  Now if only there was more care taken into preventing these types catastrophic shortfalls. The first step is always acknowledging the problem, and it seems that industry is only willing to do so publicly when there is a solution in hand rather than on the horizon.

I will come back to this post to add more of my thoughts, and expand more into a variety of branches relating to robotics…

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A video about prosthetic limbs which instills a sense of urgency for me to explore design once again…

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