Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Robots lack the human touch; will they ever have it?

Since the first robotic arm was designed at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in the 1960s, robots have learned to perform repetitive factory work, but they can barely open a door, pick themselves up if they fall, pull a coin out of a pocket or twirl a pencil.

The correlation between highly evolved artificial intelligence and physical ineptness even has a name: Moravec’s paradox, after the robotics pioneer Hans Moravec, who wrote in 1988, “It is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult-level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a 1-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility.”

Advances in haptics and kinematics, the study of motion control in jointed bodies, are essential if robots are ever to collaborate with humans in hoped-for roles like food service worker, medical orderly, office secretary and health care assistant.
Back in the Fall of 1981 I think it was, after I'd spent a summer with NASA, I told Dave Hays, who'd been my teacher, about some "blue sky" plans for self-reproducing factories on the moon. You haul a bunch of gear and computers to the moon, everything you need to build a factory that builds robots. It then proceeds to mind the moon for necessary materials and starts cranking out replicas of itself. Hays remarked to me that the problem was not the intelligence end of the business, it was the physical end, things like screwing bolts into holes and rotating and arranging things just so.

Our sense of touch is just ridiculously sensitive:
Research suggests that our sense of touch is actually several orders of magnitude finer than previously believed. Last fall, for example, Swedish scientists reported in the journal Nature that dynamic human touch — for example, when a finger slides across a surface — could distinguish ridges no higher than 13 nanometers, or about 0.0000005 of an inch.

That is the scale of individual molecules. Or as Mark Rutland, a professor of surface chemistry at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden, put it, if your finger were as big as the earth, it could feel the difference between a car and a house. Physiologists have shown that the interaction between a finger and a surface is detected by organs called mechanoreceptors, which are embedded at different depths in the skin. Some are sensitive to changes in an object’s size or shape and others to vibrations.

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