Path 4: Manipulation
In the living room, Jeeves asks if there are any other requests. "When will dinner be ready?" Jack wonders. He and his wife, Mia, who should be home soon, have requested one of their favorite dishes, veal sauted in garlic and olive oil. "At 7:00," Jeeves answers. After quickly picking up the mess in the family room, Jeeves removes the ingredients from the refrigerator and starts to prep. The olive oil is in a cabinet above the stove. Jeeves's fingers and palm, covered in sensitive artificial skin, act almost as a second pair of eyes as he reaches out, carefully touches his fingers to the bottle, and picks it up gently by the neck.
Autonomous manipulation-the ability to grasp and study unknown objects without crushing or dropping them-is a growing area of research. It furthers intelligence work by outfitting robots with the tools they need to interact with and learn about their environment, but it's also important on a more basic level. We're going to want our humanoid to push a vacuum, stack and empty a dishwasher, open doors, and use knives to chop garlic and parsley. To do all that, it will need hands.
NASA's Robonaut, designed to perform maintenance and repair work on the International Space Station, has thin, human-size hands capable of wielding a variety of tools. And last year, roboticists at the University of Tokyo developed a hand that can catch a ball projected at 186 mph. These are significant advances, but another critical part of manipulation, roboticists say, is feel. "Our skin is a ridiculously good sensor," observes Oliver Brock, a roboticist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, who is developing a hand designed to open doors.
At MIT, roboticist Eduardo Torres-Jara is fine-tuning Obrero, a one-armed robot with artificial skin on its fingertips and palm that can not only sense the presence and magnitude of forces applied to it, but the direction from which those pressures are being applied. If a bottle of olive oil were to start slipping out of a robo-chef's hand, the artificial skin would tell the robot how it's falling and allow it to recover its grip before the bottle fell to the floor.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.