The difference between Japanese and US robotics

I’m going to give you a quick lesson in the difference between Japanese and US robot research. Or how about this: I’ll just show you two pictures, and you see if you can spot the difference.

There, on the left, that’s a Japanese robot. And on the right there, that’s a US robot. They are both walkers. And yet… something seems different.


Now, to be fair, these robots serve different purposes. But I feel certain that a Japanese roboticist would take one look at the headless wretch from Boston Dynamics and cry out, “For the love of God, why didn’t you put a face on that thing? Some Mr. Potato Head eyes, or a Hello Kitty sticker… anything!”

I’m not sure why humanoid robots are so popular in Japan. I’m told it has something to do with Astroboy. I will grant you there’s something creepy about the lawnmower-with-legs in the video.

The Robotic Amoeba

I’m a sucker for the robot videos on BotJunkie, and this soft deformable robot is no exception. It’s fun to see how a blob bot can be made to work, but I’m especially impressed with the video itself. I love the pencil animation at the beginning.

Back in the original desktop publishing revolution, it took people (non-designer people) a while to figure out the basic aesthetics of fonts and page layout. After that, some people who would never have become commercial artists or designers just happened to have a flair for design, and their snazzy documents gave them an advantage in the workplace.

These days something similar is happening with video. The tools to make high quality video are now in people’s hands. Not everybody can take advantage of those tools, but some people are naturals. This video was made by grad students. I’m reminded of the awesome Six Minutes of Terror video made by JPL about the two rovers arrival on Mars. It’s a professional job, for sure, but it’s much slicker than it “needs” to be. My favorite part is the cinema verité shot of the parachuting space probe headed for the surface. We’re looking through a shaky camera being held by a (purely imaginary) guy skydiving next to rover.

Anyway, videos are getting better and better, even when made by grad students. I’m betting that screwing around with the demo reel is a great way to put off actual work on the dissertation.

Robot emotions

I regularly read the robot-oriented BotJunkie blog. Evan Ackerman, the Bot-Junkie-in-Chief, covers everything from military flying robots to frivolous toy robots. There’s a lot of research these days into robots that show emotion, and I was struck by the difference in approaches used by different teams. Here is the creepy and uncanny Albert Einstein emoting robot.


Follow the link to watch the video, but it’s not very impressive. Getting the face just right turns out to be a difficult path to convincing emotion. But now watch what little Keepon can do with a yellow-blob body, cartoony eyes and nose, and some serious dance move mojo.

Who would you want to have over for dinner, creepy Al, or squeezeable Keepon? Everybody loves Keepon.

The same idea of emotional behavior is behind this robot that can’t figure out how to plug itself in. It needs help from a passing human, and it knows it. Don’t try to look human. Just act cute: by begging, it gets the response it needs. Here’s the concept video.

Maybe there’s a reason that the word emotion is mostly motion.

Bionic air penguins

This little YouTube movie looks to me like it belongs in the exposition part of a science fiction movie. For some reason, it made me think of the Mr. DNA video in Jurassic Park.

The images are so surreal and the voiceover is so oleaginous that it seems like fiction. But no, it’s not fiction. It’s just German. Festo is a real company, and they’re doing some amazing stuff. Those bionic air penguins (just after a minute into the movie) are the real deal. Who, after seeing this video, can honestly say they don’t want to own a bionic air penguin? Team them up with a few Big Dogs and you’re starting to get a good approximation of video games in real life.

BotJunkie and BigDog

I’ve started following the BotJunkie blog for fun stories and videos about robots. It reminds me how close I came to a career in robotics. I like the blog’s tag line: “From the folks who brought you, BotJunkie obsessively chronicles Man’s inevitable descent into cybernetic slavery.”

BotJunkie has plenty of weird stuff like snake-like locomotion (“Robot Snakes Crawl Up Your Pants”) and a robotic tennis ball slingshot for your pet dachshund, but every now and then I see a video that really knocks me flat. Look at the latest video from Boston Dynamics of the packbot BigDog.

Gott im Himmel! Did you see that great beast slip on the ice? What a piece of work! You can’t help but feel sympathy for the thing.

Robots really have turned the corner in the last few years. You can, for example, watch that dandified piece of clockwork, QRIO, mincing around on rollerskates. That was impressive, but it was really just a tarted-up excerpt from the film version of the Future. QRIO wouldn’t last five minutes in the real future, the one where you and I are headed. But BigDog… BigDog is from the future. The real future where he might have to kick ass in a Klondike barroom after humping over the Chilkoot Pass.

I don’t need a little Roomba with a vacuum attachment. I want a BigDog with a stick.

Falling in love with robots

Last week I went to the Media Lab’s h2.0 conference at MIT. “h2.0” stands for human 2.0; the conference centered on the surprisingly close relationship between using technology to cope with human disabilities and using technology to augment human capabilities. That is to say, people with disabilities are leading the way on human augmentation of any kind. The bionic man is already here, and he asks that you not pity him. He finds it tiresome, and it makes you look naive. This makes plenty of sense, but still it catches you by surprise to hear a double amputee say “Why would I want my old human knees back? I get to keep upgrading mine for the rest of my life.” As Aimee Mullins, a double-amputee sprinter, said during her talk “If I want to run fast, I don’t want prosthetic legs modeled after a human. I want legs like a cheetah.”

Anyway, one of the things that came up during the talks was the investment that the Media Lab is making in robots. This by itself is not surprising, but the next part is: The Media Lab is investing in robots for the purpose of connecting emotionally with humans. I met a guy who is making robotic diet coaches. The main purpose of the robot is to stare at you soulfully, blink blink, and ask that you truthfully relate your daily eating habits. And apparently this works. People trust robots and respond to robots much much more than they would to a screen-bound animation. These robots don’t need fancy arms and legs, because once you fall in love with them, you will do the legwork for them.

I was particularly reminded of all this when I came across Clive Thompson’s recent link to an article in the Washington Post: Bots on The Ground is about the growing emotional bond between soldiers and the machines that serve them. It’s a great article.

Evolving robots

Read this story and you may well conclude a robot uprising is right around the corner.

Carl Zimmer’s recent post Evolving Robotspeak describes robotics research done by social evolution researcher Laurent Keller in Switzerland. Plenty of folks have used genetic algorithms to “breed” robots, but this is the first time I’ve heard of someone using family and colony models for their genetics. In a nutshell, if you breed individual robots to find virtual food, they quickly get trained to do pretty well. But if you breed them as families, they do even better. To put it in anthropomorphic terms, their intermingled genetics help them understand the value of cooperation.

It’s fascinating to see the genetic theories of social behavior borne out in a colony of robotic organisms. This Darwin guy may have been on to something after all.

Animal-like robots

We’re definitely entering a new realm with robotics. Before robotic motion was always painfully awkward and stilted, not something you would ever mistake for the smooth motion of an animal. But these days you can find plenty of examples of remarkably fluid “un-robotic” behavior. Things will progress very rapidly from here. The YouTube video below shows human-controlled robots. They’re being driven by remote control, but they’re still a treat to watch.

This next example is a video of a robotic eel, and it truly has to be seen to be believed. Again, it’s radio-controlled, but still, LOOK AT THAT FELLER SWIM! Straight out of a Bond movie.

Electric donkey

I’ve been amazed to see how quickly web video has transitioned from novelty to mainstream. So often now interesting links come along with video. Here’s the latest, an electric pack mule.

When I read that Boston Dynamics had made a stable robot quadruped, I was intrigued enough to follow the link and look at the clip. What I wasn’t prepared for was how disturbing it was going to be to see two pairs of skinny disembodied human legs nervously schlepping across a field. I’m anthropomorphizing here, but you’ll forgive me when you see the video. I imagine they put the little black leggings on to keep mud out of the leg machinery, but those tights are perfectly tuned to make the effect all the more disturbing. I kept looking for the people in the machine, the stunt midgets or whatever, that were really making this thing work. Inspiring robotics, but I would be creeped out if these guys were carrying my luggage. Would I have to give them a tip? Would I have to tip both of them? How long after we invent truly helpful robots before they turn into surly, intimidating tip hounds?

As if it weren’t weird enough to see this skinny-legged push-me pull-you donkey freak, the same company makes robotic cockroaches. Here’s a movie of one named RHex. There’s another one that climbs walls, called RiSE, and then there’s a doggy that does a dandy syncopated tap dance of a walk. Here’s the whole family. The movies are all good. The overall impression I get after looking at these videos is either A) these robots are sophisticated visitors from the future, or B) they are villains in a lame Half-Life mod.

Electric muscles

Could you beat the EAP? At the recent artificial arm-wrestling contest, you almost certainly would have. EAP stands for electroactive polymer, also known as artificial muscle, and earlier this month, the best
artificial arms wrestled with a human opponent and lost decisively. (Note: the human opponent was a girl!)

We always hear about artificial intelligence, but never artificial muscle. Why? Because electric motors do our heavy lifting. But muscles have some powerful advantages over motors. When it comes to “real” muscle (that is, stretchy springy animal-like fibers) we are ignorant and unskilled. But good progress is being made, and when we have cheap reliable robot muscle, all kinds of interesting things will become possible. Even the simplest motor is quite complicated, but muscle offers quiet, cheap, scalable functionality. The potential for a wiggly landscape is appealingly weird. Perhaps your car will motor along on cilia. Your computer will be cooled by miniature lungs. And the Lazy Susan will stop being lazy, choosing instead to carry the mashed potatoes to your plate on tiny legs. If you could reel out electric muscle by the yard, Christmas tree lights might also be employed to have the tree dance and twist. Garden hoses could slither their way to the dry part of the lawn. Artificial muscle is a much bigger story than it first appears to be.