Blobby-handed robots

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.

5 thoughts on “Blobby-handed robots”

  1. Another benefit is that our race can avoid what happened in Battlestar Galactica. (or perhaps I should say, what is GOING to happen in Battlestar Galactica …”All this has happened before, and all this will happen again.”)

  2. Oh, oh, I forget the name of the product that gets advertised by one of the Ronco pitchman’s spawn, but there’s a wrench on the market that works this way.

    I wonder what other advances in robotics/AI/etc. can be had by cribbing 3am commercials.

    –JMike

  3. Jay..I thought that tag line was from Peter Pan, not BSG.
    Anyway, what are the ramifications to creationism of a robotic hand that is better designed than the one we have? Wait, it has no trigger finger, so all bets are off.
    Still, I think this puts RoboApocalypse slightly ahead of ZombieApocalypse in terms of which is most likely to happen first.
    Better build a trickier doorknob on my bunker.

  4. Since all things eventually come back to Monty Python anyway, this is my interpretation of the evolution of the human hand:

    Replace the words “fin” for “terrier” and “paw, hoof, or hand” for “cat, parrot, or fish” (respectively) and you’ve got a lovely little metaphorical treatise on the evolutionary constraints of the vertebrate bodyplan.

    Lemon Curry?

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