Robots have been around for over half a century now, making constant progress in terms of their sophistication and intelligence levels, as well as their conceptual and literal closeness to humans. As they become smarter and more aware, it becomes easier to get closer to them both socially and physically. That leads to a world where robots do things not only for us but also with us.
Not-so-intelligent robots made their first debut in factory environments in the late ‘50s. Their main role was to merely handle the tasks that humans were either not very good at or that were dangerous for them. Traditionally, these robots have had very limited sensing; they have essentially been blind despite being extremely strong, fast, and repeatable. Considering what consequences were likely to follow if humans were to freely wander about within the close vicinity of these strong, fast, and blind robots, it seemed to be a good idea to isolate them from the environment by placing them in safety cages.
Advances in the fields of sensing and compliant control made it possible to get a bit closer to these robots, again both socially and physically. Researchers have started proposing frameworks that would enable human-robot collaborative manipulation and task execution in various scenarios. Bi-manual collaborative manufacturing robots like YuMi by ABB and service robots like HERB by the Personal Robotics Lab of Carnegie Mellon University have started emerging. Various modalities of learning from/programming by demonstration, such as kinesthetic teaching and imitation, make it very natural to interact with these robots and teach them the skills and tasks we want them perform the way we teach a child. For instance, the Baxter robot by Rethink Robotics heavily utilizes these capabilities and technologies to potentially bring a teachable robot to every small company with basic manufacturing needs.
As robots gets smarter, more aware, and safer, it becomes easier to socially accept and trust them as well. This reduces the physical distance between humans and robots even further, leading to assistive robotic technologies, which literally “live” side by side with humans 24/7. One such project is the Assistive Dexterous Arm (ADA) that we have been carrying out at the Robotics Institute and the Human-Computer Interaction Institute of Carnegie Mellon University. ADA is a wheelchair mountable, semi-autonomous manipulator arm that utilizes the sliding autonomy concept in assisting people with disabilities in performing their activities of daily living. Our current focus is on assistive feeding, where the robot is expected to help the users eat their meals in a very natural and socially acceptable manner. This requires the ability to predict the user’s behaviors and intentions as well as spatial and social awareness to avoid awkward situations in social eating settings. Also, safety becomes our utmost concern as the robot has to be very close to the user’s face and mouth during task execution.
In addition to assistive manipulators, there have also been giant leaps in the research and development of smart and lightweight exoskeletons that make it possible for paraplegics to walk by themselves. These exoskeletons make use of the same set of technologies, such as compliant control, situational awareness through precise sensing, and even learning from demonstration to capture the walking patterns of a healthy individual.
These technologies combined with the recent developments in neuroscience have made it possible to get even closer to humans than an assistive manipulator or an exoskeleton, and literally unite with them through intelligent prosthetics. An intelligent prosthetic limb uses learning algorithms to map the received neural signals to the user’s intentions as the user’s brain is constantly adapting to the artificial limb. It also needs to be highly compliant to be able to handle the vast variance and uncertainty in the real world, not to mention safety.
Extrapolating from the aforementioned developments and many others, we can easily say that robots are going to be woven into our lives. Laser technology used to be unreachable and cutting-edge from an average person’s perspective a couple decades ago. However, as Rodney Brooks says in his book titled Robot: The Future of Flesh and Machines, (Penguin Books, 2003), now we do not know exactly how many laser devices we have in our houses, and more importantly we don’t even care! That will be the case for the robots. In the not so distant future, we will be enjoying the ride in our autonomous vehicle as a bunch of nanobots in our blood stream are delivering drugs and fixing problems, and we will feel good knowing that our older relatives are getting some great care from their assistive companion robots.
This essay appears in Circuit Cellar 298, May 2015.