Early experiments with flying were vexed by the notion that proper wings ought to flap. After all, birds flap their wings, so flying men should have flappy wings. Right? It stands to reason. But then again, we can put a man on the moon and still, to this day, nobody goes flying in a flappy plane. It’s hard to fight the biomimetic urge. I’m guessing the first wheel was delayed by a few thousand years because the prehistoric Thomas Edisons of the world assumed the first technological conveyance should have legs.
How strange that nature should have arrived at inventions that are so wildly impractical from our point of view. The thing that really freed humans as inventors was letting go of the natural precedents. But the temptation is still strong, particularly in the realm of robots. You want something that covers ground? Give it legs. You want to make something that picks stuff up, make hands, of course. And if you’re Japanese, build a humanoid form and teach it to dance.
This week Mike Onken sent me note about a non-anthropomorphic gripper based on “jamming.” You can grab complex objects with confidence and ease using a rubber balloon stuffed with little pellets. First you mash the balloon onto the object. Then, when you’re ready to pick it up, jam more stuff into the balloon and it stiffens into a rigor mortis-like grip.
It works really well for such a simple idea. Here’s a video that appeared on BotJunkie.
As Mike said, this is another example of “just ’cause nature does it that way doesn’t mean that’s the best way to do it.” The desire to create a mechanical man in our image is perversely strong. Perhaps God had the same problem. He could have made something so much more practical, but he just had to make us look like him.