Elephant Trunk Robot Learns Like A Child

You know, like a child with mechanical tentacles.

Bionic Handling Assistant

This is a robot that learns like a baby. A terrifying, robotic baby.Festo

Four years ago, German engineering firm Festo came up with a concept for a robotic arm. Somewhere between an iron snake, a mechanical claw, and a sci-fi tentacle, the Bionic Handling Assistant is functionally most similar to an elephant's trunk.

But what should a robot arm grab? For inspiration about learning what to do with hands, the scientists turned to babies.

The arm remembers movements that have been guided by a researcher, much like how a baby grabbing onto a parent's finger and will let his arm be moved when the adult moves. The programming behind the robotic trunk teaches it to remember positions that worked for grabbing.

The New Scientist story on a visit to the Festo lab is well worth a read.

I am in Jochen Steil's lab, grasping a segmented, whiplashing tentacle that resists and tries to push me away. It feels strangely alive, as though I am trying to throttle a giant alien maggot. In fact, I am training a bionic elephant's trunk to do real-world jobs like picking apples or replacing light bulbs – something non-experts haven't been able to do until now.

Here's hoping they never develop a taste for blood like the sciencey tentacle-arms of Spiderman 2's Doctor Octopus.

Watch a video of the trunk below: