Sunday, March 17, 2013

If it Walks Like a Duck...

I’ve been reading magazines like Archeology and Popular Science, trying to learn The State of Science So Far. Many of the articles in these magazines are fascinating and could serve as a spring board for stories.

One article was about a group who were designing robot legs that could walk like a human. The legs don’t exactly look human; there’s a couple kevlar straps (used as muscles) in the back that - when contracted - are outside the thigh, connected to the calf by a plastic flange. But the results move much more like a human leg than other robots have managed.

I was very excited a few years back to hear about Asimo, a child-sized humanoid robot that could walk. But I was disappointed when I actually saw it in motion. Slow motion, that is. Asimo would lean to the right a bit, pick its left foot up straight for about an inch, move the left foot forward a couple inches and put it down, repeat for the other side. And at all times, the foot remained parallel to the floor. It was a strange gait, rather painful to watch.

Besides a different system of ‘muscles’, the new method of robot walking also makes use of something like a human’s subconscious. A human learns to walk, and then leaves the actual giving of instructions to a corner of the mind. We don’t have to actively think, ‘Lean, lift by bending, swing foot forward, lower, adjust balance...’ The people making this new robot gait removed such calculations from the robot main processor and gave this skill to a separate processor.

This particular robot only has legs and feet right now, but I am beginning to anticipate a real android - a robot made to look (and act?) like a human. Data of STNG, the androids in the Alien movies would be examples, although I swear I remember old tv comedies about robots paired with a human to see how well they ‘blended in’. Could that happen soon in a neighborhood near you?

I was also amused to read in this article that one problem the team had to solve was that the hard plastic of the feet’s soles could not grip the floor. They debated about other materials to use for the soles until somebody put a pair of Keds on the robot.

If it walks like a human, it deserves the right footwear, don’t you think?

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