Friday, May 22, 2015

A Robotic Tentacle, and Disney's Baymax

Disney Studio's film version of Baymax is fiction. Robots designed to work with people are real: although they're nowhere near as smart as their fictional counterparts.
  1. STIFF-FLOP's Robotic Tentacle
  2. Cuddly Robots

Frankenstein's Monster, C-3PO - - -


Many of today's movie robots arguably owe their homicidal personalities to Karel Čapek's 1920 "R.U.R." (Rosumovi Univerzální Roboti/Rossum’s Universal Robots) and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's "Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus," published in 1818.

Čapek's robots were synthetic organisms, more like Victor Frankenstein's monster and Philip K. Dick's androids than R2-D2 and C-3PO. But I think they helped establish the notion that artificial intelligence leads to mass murder: or, in the case of R.U.R., genocide.

Movies like "Colossus: The Forbin Project" (1970) and "I, Robot" (2004) followed the time-honored plot of scientists creating artificial intelligence — which tries, more-or-less-successfully, to destroy its creator and/or take over the world.

That's a lot more dramatic than having the wannabe evil robot overlord boast that "nothing can withstand my FILE NOT FOUND!"

I've talked about technology, angst, and the Roomba revolution that wasn't, before. Quite often. (May 15, 2015; August 22, 2014; August 15, 2014)

- - - and Ultron


The latest Avengers movie's Ultron followed the time-honored robotic tradition of trying to exterminate humanity, and I'm drifting off-topic.

Back in the real world, Early Adopter Jibo Developer Editions are due for shipping in late fall, 2015.

Unless you supported Jibo's development through Indiegogo, you'll have to wait until spring of 2016 before your home edition model ships.

I learned about MIT Media Lab's Cynthia Breazeal's AI yesterday afternoon, and haven't had time to check out "the world's first social robot." Not enough for one of these posts. Maybe next week.

On the other hand, I don't want the Friday post to be 'all robots, all the time,' and that's another topic.

Before discussing robots and coffee, I'll rehash why I'm pretty sure that God isn't offended when we use our brains.

Imagining that science, technology, money, or anything else, will take the place of God is daft: and a very bad idea. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2112-2114)

However, we're made in the image of God: rational creatures, able to study this world and develop new tools. Science and technology are part of being human: it's what we're supposed to do. Ethics apply, of course, but thinking is not a sin. (Genesis 1:27-31; Catechism, 31-32, 1730, 2292-2296)


1. STIFF-FLOP's Robotic Tentacle



(From Tommaso Ranzini et al, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("The device was put to the test manipulating water-filled balloons"
(BBC News))
"Robotic tentacle targets keyhole surgery"
Jonathan Webb, BBC News (May 14, 2015)

"Engineers have constructed a robotic arm, aimed at improving surgical operations and inspired by the octopus.

"Just like its aquatic inspiration, the robotic tentacle has no rigid skeleton; it can bend, stretch and switch between flexible and rigid states as required.

"Its movement is driven by inflatable compartments and its stiffness by a central tube containing a specially selected granular medium: coffee.

"When suction is applied, the granules 'jam' to create the desired rigidity...."
"Keyhole surgery" is probably easier to say than "laparoscopy," and sidesteps the trademark infringement issues of "Band-Aid surgery." Johnson & Johnson's trademark may eventually join "zipper" in the roster of genericized trademarks, and that's yet another topic. ("Laparoscopy (keyhole surgery)," National Health Service, UK; BAND-AID, United State Patent and Trademark Office)

STIFF-FLOP is focusing on "Challenge 2 - Cognitive systems and robotics:" which may or may not have something to do with the European Commission's Horizon 2020 program.

Their Project Overview page outlines why we don't have robot surgeons yet. They talk about "restricted access through Trocar ports, lack of haptic feedback, and difficulties with rigid robot tools operating inside a confined space filled with organs."

Time to break out the dictionary. A trocar is a sort of hollow needle: the business end of a cannula, a flexible tube stuck into a patient. Haptic means "of or relating to the sense of touch; tactile." (thefreedictionary.com)

Don't bother trying to remember all that. There will not be a test on this.

Basically, robotic tools haven't been small enough to fit through the standard 12 millimeter Trocar port. Besides, robots haven't had the delicate sense of touch it takes to navigate someone's interior.

The STIFF-FLOP folks say they'll develop a robotic system that works like octopus arms and elephant trunks.

When they're done, we'll have robot that can feel its way through a shifting maze of organs and use tiny surgical instruments. It's an ambitious goal.

Jonathan Webb's article focuses on a prototype that's 14 centimeters, about four and three quarters inches, long; three centimeters, roughly one and an eighth inches, wide. It's nowhere near small nor nimble enough for surgery: but as a proof of concept, it's impressive.

Sucking air out of the robot arm's core jams the coarse-ground coffee granules together, making the arm stiff. Three air-filled tubes around the core act as muscles, pretty much the same way McKibben Artificial Muscles worked back in the 1950s.

Dragon Skin® and Coffee



(From Tommaso Ranzini et al, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
("A tube of coffee granules at its core is the secret of the arm's tunable rigidity"
(BBC News))

Part of the BioRobotics Institute's robotic arm is made of Smooth-On, Inc.'s Dragon Skin®, a sort of silicone rubber.

Silicone rubber is synthetic stuff developed in the 1940s that era's new, smaller, electric motors. It's also good for architectural restoration, and making really scary masks. I think silicone rubber is easier to pronounce than polydimethylsiloxane, and that's yet again another topic.

The "specially selected granular medium" in the robotic tentacle's core has been around for centuries, at least. My guess is that folks knew about coffee before Sufi monasteries in Yemen started growing it. That was around the mid-15th century.

Pretty soon folks throughout Arabia were growing and brewing coffee beans. It spread to Persia, Turkey, and northern Africa in the 1500s. Baba Budan smuggled some coffee beans from Yemen to India in 1670.

By that time, Viennese traders had upset folks in Venice by selling the 'Islamic' drink. Pope Clement VIII said coffee is okay in 1600, and the first non-Ottoman coffee house in Europe opened in 1645.

Many Europeans switched from wine and beer to tea and coffee, a few centuries later we were building robots and spaceships, and that's still another topic. (July 5, 2013)

Where was I? Synthetic rubber, Pope Clement VIII, coffee, spaceships. Right.

Robot Arms, Cockroach Brains


Flexible robot arms have been around for several years: some hard, some soft, and at least one with a 'jammable' core. I gather that what's special about the STIFF-FLOP team's efforts is that they're developing a miniature robot tentacle for minimally invasive surgery.

Another of their goals is developing a "manipulation system that experiences and learns from physical interactions with its environment." That, I suspect, will be a lot harder than making a tiny tentacle. (April 24, 2015; August 15, 2014)

An octopus, one of the critters they're emulating, has about 300,000,000 neurons: two-thirds of them in its arms. IBM's TrueNorth chip, which emulates an animal's brain, has about 1,000,000: about as many as a cockroach brain. The last I checked, software for that tech is still in development.

More than you may want to know about robotic tentacles:

2. Cuddly Robots



(From Disney, via Reuters, used w/o permission.)
(A clip from "Big Hero 6," with Walt Disney Animation Studios' version of Baymax, a Marvel Comics robot superhero.)
"The future of cuddly robots"
Ben Gruber, Reuters (May 14, 2015)

"Disney's Big Hero 6 star Baymax has captured the hearts of millions around the world. But while the health monitoring balloon-like machine is a work of science fiction, researchers are working towards making soft, human-friendly robots a reality.

"Chris Atkeson's work in the field of soft robotics inspired the creation of Baymax. He, along with researcher Yong-Lea Park, both computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University, say the public's perception is changing with the realization that robots don't necessarily want to take over the world.

" 'I don't think you are ever going to stop Hollywood from making killer robot movies but I think people want technology to help them,' Atkeson said...."
I'm not sure how much Christopher G. Atkeson work influenced the original Marvel robot superhero. Marvel's Baymax showed up in 1998, when professor Atkeson was an Associate Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

The Disney movie version of Baymax — here's what Professor Atkeson says:
"We Inspired Baymax

"The inflatable robot Baymax in the movie Disney Big Hero 6 (BH6) was inspired by Siddharth Sanan's research on inflatable robots. (2011 press release) in the National Science Foundation (NSF) Quality of Life Technology (QoLT) Engineering Research Center (ERC) at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt)...."

Artificial Intelligence: Still a Challenge



(From Reuters, used w/o permission.)
(Developments in material science help give robots a sense of touch.
(Reuters))

Up to now, robot design focused on industrial and military uses: so strength and durability were important. For robots that interact with people, safety is also important. That's why Atkenson and others are developing soft robots.

Robot behavior is important, too. RethinkRobotics' Baxter, for example, isn't squishy: but 'he' is careful. Motion sensors tell Baxter when something, or someone, is nearby.

Baxter doesn't quite have a sense of touch, but the robot notices when the arms start pressing against something: and stops moving. I intentionally got in the way of a Baxter once: and sure enough, the robot paused until I got out of the way.

We're a very long way from Baymax, mostly because today's artificial intelligence — isn't particularly 'smart' when it comes to being sociable:
"...'If I only had a brain.'

"The biggest challenge in building Baymax is building a brain capable of useful human-robot interaction. Apple's Siri, Amazon's Echo, and similar question answering agents demonstrate the recent progress in this area of artificial intelligence, and could be the basis of a real-life Baymax as well. Quality human-robot interaction matters. My other grandmother, who had become blind, was uninterested in early reading machines because the voices were not gentle or soothing...."
("Why I Want To Build Personal Health Care Companions Like Baymax," Christopher G. Atkeson)
Christopher G. Atkeson's pages at Carnegie Mellon University. Some of them, that is:
A generation or two from now, robots like Baymax may be common. Or folks may decide that robots are more useful if they're not shaped like humans.

My guess is that we'll have a mixture. Robots about our size and shape might be useful for jobs like receptionist or checkout clerk. A robotic 'chauffeur' could be part of the vehicle, and we already have personal digital assistants that fit in our pockets.

Folks with serious medical conditions might have a 'Baymax' under their skin: sort of like a smart pacemaker.

No matter what the next generation of robots is like, I'm pretty sure that some folks will think they're the best thing since sliced bread — and others will think it's the end of civilization as we know it. They'll be right, which isn't necessarily a bad thing: and that's — another topic.

More of my take on tech:

4 comments:

Brigid said...

STIFF-FLOP? Why do I get the feeling there was a lot of giggling going on when that name was picked?

Brian Gill said...

Brigid, :D

aido Robot said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
aido Robot said...

Thanks for Sharing Quality information With us ... Aido | Aido Robot

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