So what do you work on ?
Written: March 2021 | Style : Short Paragraph
One way we interact with our environments is by using our legs. We move our legs, to move our bodies, to explore our world. We can run, walk, jump, and skip, all by moving our legs in different ways. Our ability to do this is a result of the computer, our brain, the electrical wiring, our nervous system, and the motors, our muscles, working together like a well-oiled machine. Like any machine, there are limitations in its capabilities. The fastest human has achieved running speeds of 43.5 km/h. The best jumper has jumped 1.65m high. Although these achievements are impressive, could we do better? What if I told you we could use body-worn robots to enable us to run faster and jump higher; to enable us to move our legs in novel ways, allowing us to achieve new feats. This is what I work on in my research. I study what limits the performance of our well oil-machine, our human bodies, to achieve even greater performance. I study how our brain, our nervous system, and our muscles work together to move our legs and allow us to move. I do this by developing experiments to study our underlying physiology (how our body works). I then use this understanding to inform the development of body-worn robots that tweak and enhance our leg’s. Maybe soon you will be able to put on a pair of robotic pants that allow you to run faster and jumper higher with the flick of a switch.
Is an espresso machine a robot ?
Written: December 2020 | Style : Short Essay
If you had asked me 20 years ago what comes to mind when there are mention of ‘robots’, I might have thought of R2D2, the droid from Star Wars. My parents perhaps might think of thought of ‘Rosie the maid’ from the Jetsons, and my grandparents might have laughed, waved their hands, and described walking toys for kids with tacky lights and unnecessary knobs. Three generations might share a common opinion – that we perceive robots as human-resembling machines or humanoids. The physical word ‘robot’ is not a well-defined term—it can mean different things to different people. Science fiction has played a role in influencing the common perception of robotics. However, with ever-growing access to affordable computing and developments in computer hardware, we are living in a translational period. In the past, popular opinion may have been that a robot is a rigid metal box with superfluous lights and buttons, but the reality is now paralleling perceived science fictional worlds. Robots of the present can be agile like animals, worn like clothing, and be made soft like sponges. With robotics research on the rise, the perception of robots is changing.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) loosely defines a robot as an “autonomous machine capable of sensing its environment, carrying out computations to make decisions, and performing actions in the real world.” A fancy espresso machine meets these criteria. It can sense its environment (e.g. ambient temperature, amount of beans, orientation in space), compute its desired action and perform the act of grinding beans and brewing coffee. However, it’s unlikely that the general population would perceive an expresso machine as a robot. What if this same espresso machine extended an arm and handed you your coffee? Similarly, a smartphone, GPS watch, and thermostat, all of which can sense, compute, and perform an action, are in fact types of robots. Yet, we can be quick to associate these robots as ‘devices’ serving specific tasks rather than as robots per se. Roboticists aim to humanize machines by intentionally incorporating qualities such as limbs, motion and/or language to influence the way we perceive them. In light of this, the aforementioned definition may lack descriptive characteristics of behaviour or physical traits of a robot to be able to distinguish between what we perceive as a ‘device’ compared to what we imagine a ‘robot’ to be. With sufficient disparity in technology and an ever-growing landscape of robotics—the way robots are designed, what materials they are made from, and how they are programmed to behave—a single definition might be too limiting.
Recently, I saw a concept for a futuristic delivery courier. Imagine you are sitting on the porch savouring that morning coffee when suddenly, a locomoting humanoid walks up to your door, greets you, and hands you a parcel. I think a common reaction may be, “Wow! A robot just delivered my package!”. Unlike that espresso machine—stagnate— this humanoid courier with its dynamic behaviour and limb-like metal appendages triggers a sequence of neurons in the brain that immediately makes you think, “it’s a robot!”. I feel this exact way when I see Boston Dynamics, a robotics research company, showcase its animal-like machines which objectively resemble and move like canines. With agile limbs, these metal pups walk with an uncanny similarity to their biological equivalents. When a machine is designed to act like and resemble a biological organism, such as a humanoid courier or Boston Dynamics canines, one might initially feel puzzled. Disoriented by the fact that what we expect to be biologically alive, is in fact contrived by humans. Often though, we can quickly accept the biological mimicry of the machine and discern what we are in fact looking at as ‘a robot’. Science fiction has primed us to make a link between biology and robotics; to dream of biologically inspired robot designs indistinguishable from nature herself. This linkage between robots and humanistic (biological) features is perhaps a candidate reason as to why the espresso machine may never quite make the ‘robot’ cut.
An emerging class of robotics, referred to as “wearables”, has been establishing its presence in our modern world. An example of a wearable is an exoskeleton–a body-worn ‘robot’ that helps impaired muscles by aiding the motion of biological limbs. Sensors on the exoskeleton orient the position of the wearer’s limb, compute the desired motion and perform the action of assisting with bodily movement. One example of such a ‘robot’ is a lower limb exoskeleton made from rigid components helping people with spinal cord injuries to walk again. The exoskeleton attaches onto the exterior of the legs supporting the bodyweight of the wearer and with onboard motors moves the legs of the user placing one leg in front of the other. A smart exo-glove, made completely from soft and flexible materials, is a type of exoskeleton that fits onto a user’s hand to assist with the movement of the fingers for people with muscular dystrophy. The exo-glove uses pressurized air to move a series of elastic finger-like tubes to non-invasively close and open the wearer’s hand. How can technology worn on and working alongside the biological body, and even made from soft materials, be capable of computing and performing useful actions like ‘a robot’? Advancements in material science, sensors and hardware have led to such innovation and this technology is emerging, it is proficient, and it is shifting the landscape of what a robot is.
As a scientist, I am exposed to innovative technologies as part of my career so I am quick to think ‘robot’ when I wear an exoskeleton. But as these ‘robots’ gradually integrate into the lives of people, perhaps to the perception of robots will change. Maybe this association of robots as humanoids or as biologically resembling machines will see gradual change as research leads to the integration of wearable technologies, such as exoskeletons and soft flexible garments, into our modern society. Humans will undoubtedly continue to push the boundaries of robotics as new discoveries are made. Robots may one day be completely indistinguishable from innate objects, from the clothing we wear and perhaps even from humans themselves. Alongside technological growth, our perception of robots will continue to also evolve. The fancy espresso machine of the future may look nothing like the one of today. What robotics will be in 100, 200, and 500 years from now is an interesting thought experiment. At the rate innovation is happening, my grandchildren will chuckle when I tell them stories of the ‘robots’ of my time.