If the day comes when the robots become aware, we will have to explain to them the decades we dedicate to ridicule their movements in our dance steps. And if it does not arrive, we will not have the urge to laugh when they are the ones in charge of sticking the syringes.
The robots that we make fun of, the vast majority, are able to overcome us without great difficulties in terms of strength, speed and precision, but they can not move like a palm tree. They lack an endless number of joints and degrees of flexibility. "In industry, for example, if you have a robotic arm, you usually have it locked in a cage because it has a very high force and it can be dangerous to share that environment with humans," explains Judith Viladomat, of Pal Robotics, a Barcelona company specialized in humanoid robotics.
What does it matter to you that robots do not dance? soft, smooth, its-its-smooth? You will see, apart from artistic expression, in less than you think those brusque and lacking in sensitivity machines could be doing a laparoscopy. How do you prefer to have a camera in the abdominal cavity? With force, speed and precision? Or with soft and delicate movements?
Amy Laviers, director of the robotics, automation and dance laboratory at the University of Illinois, has it clear: "Humanoid machines should move and gesticulate like us." To a large extent, it is a matter of coexistence both with us and with the environment we inhabit, which is obviously tailored to our needs and abilities. "When you put a robot in a human environment, everything is adapted to you, so you can move with your legs and use your instruments." With a humanoid robot, you do not need to adapt anything from the environment so you can start acting " Viladomat
We return to the same thing: How do you prefer that your robotic partner give you the pill, place you the purchase or bring you a cup of hot tea?
Part of the problem is that, as far as mechanics are concerned, the body of the robots has not changed much. "The 28 joints of Atlas are very similar to those of the first humanoids," says Laviers, using the bipedal android Boston Dynamics. In one hand of ours, there are 25 joints. On one foot, 33. The robustness of Atlas and his spectacular reverse somersaults do not prevent his no less impressive efforts to march through the snow reminiscent of the staggering pace of a drunkard.
And yet, its winter swing is a feat that is also among the goals of Pal Robotics. "One of the most important things we have done, which has been an improvement over previous models, is to integrate force sensors," says Viladomat. With them they get their most advanced model, Thalos, not to go around the world like an elephant in a china shop. On the one hand, it detects irregularities in the ground and modulates its movements in response to these, thus achieving a better balance. On the other, it limits the risk and severity of collisions.
The possibility of being pounded by a robot is also counteracted from another emerging field: that of soft robots. The idea is to incorporate elastic, flexible and ductile materials into the manufacturing process. But in this case, its tender constitution is rather a consequence of the main objective: "This latest generation of soft robots will increase the range of movements and possible uses," explains Laviers.
In principle, everything seems advantages. Soft technologies would allow us to simplify the algorithmic complexity associated with classic designs, provide greater security to our interactions with them and even open the door to new improvements in the field of health, for example, in terms of design of prostheses. refers.
We would thus close a circle that began with ourselves, because what we try to copy is the result of 4,000 million years of evolution of life on earth. "Nature has created our movements, which allow us to move well in different types of terrains, which makes us a good example." Understanding the principles by which the movements of animals and humans are governed allows us to find ways to reproduce them ", points out Viladomat
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However, soft robots are not the only answer. Laviers warns that we will encounter the same difficulties if we do not revise the rigid predominant control systems, centered on speeds and forces. How? With the help of those of us who have already achieved outstanding flexibility and are undisputed experts in the body and its movements: the dancers who already know how to move like a palm tree.
"They understand the physical processes by which the body contorts," explains Laviers. The researcher gives as an example a conversation with Gregory Catellier, dance professor at Emory University. When he asked how a small droid that was operating was moving, Laviers hurried to talk about WiFi networks, servomotors and positional encoders. Catellier interrupted: "No, no, how is it even possible for a humanoid form to move without a torso?"
The professor missed the versatility that our spine gives us, how it allows us to bend, turn and stabilize. Only in vertebrae, 33, we exceed the number of Atlas articulations. In fact, even the movements of organisms infinitely simpler than we, like those that make the flagella of a bacterium, are a mechanical challenge. "We need to cover a much broader range of disciplines," says Laviers.