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This Week In Bots: Are You Ready To Be More Machine Than Man And/Or Woman?

All the recent advances in robots that grip onto asteroids, walk like dogs, and replace damaged human limbs. Enjoy!


Bot Vid: JPL's Asteroid Gripper

There's all sorts of crazy-wonderful plans about mining asteroids in the news, but we also need to remember plans to defend Earth against rogue asteroid impacts...both technologies require actually grabbing onto one, since we won't have Bruce Willis with a drilling rig on hand. NASA JPL's been tackling the task, and has combined earlier research with new thinking to make a spiny-fingered gripper for robots that's flexible and strong enough to harness the robot to an asteroid in microgravity environments so it can then dig into the surface. This stuff is real, asteroid-mining doubters!

Bot Vid: Italy's Big Dog, or Grosso Cane

BigDog and AlphaDog aren't the only robotic quadrupeds roaming the planet: Italy has one too. He's called HyQ, he's from Genoa, and he's an early stage prototype for a general purpose quadruped which can traverse all sorts of terrain to aid in search and rescue and exploration. He's been in development for a while, and is now sporting a number of upgrades such as an inertial navigation unit and sensors that make it react better to feedback through its systems. But, as the Automaton blog notes, they haven't given it a kick yet...

Bot News

Brain-controlled robots. A paper discussed in Nature this week reports an astonishing breakthrough: A patient who suffers tetraplegia after a stroke had electrodes critically implanted in her brain in order to record the neural activity associated with the intention to move. These signals were then processed and used to remotely control a robot limb—in this case a robot arm that she commanded to reach for a drinking cup and bring it to her so she could drink. The Brown University experiment has enormous promise for paralysis or amputation patients in the future.

2,000 people want to build astroid-miner bots. Planetary Resources is the new enterprise that's planning to shake the world's perceptions by seeking out and mining asteroids with robot spacecraft inside ten years, and now it's revealed that in the short window since it went public it's received 2,000 applicants for robot-designing roles inside the company. This is a far greater number than positions available, and demonstrates exactly how much the firm has captured the public's imagination.

Canon bringing robots to camera-making. Camera maker Canon has been using semi-automated processes to make its cameras for some time, but has recently noted it will produce some models entirely using robotic production methods. It's part of a gorwing trend in consumer electronics production as the cost of making sophisticated items rises and robots get more advanced...China's Foxconn, most famous as manufacturer of the iPhone, has said it will integrate more robots into its lines too.

Bot Futures: How Robot Would You Go?

The advances of the Brown University researchers in the BrainGate2 experiment to restore motor skills via robot arm to a paralysed patient are part of an ongoing sequence of studies to overcome some physical disabilities with technology. As they, and other similar efforts like the Luke Arm advance and become mainstream they're certain to change lives...but also to challenge our perceptions.

Because they raise an intriguing and complex question: If this technology advances to the point where a thought-controlled robot arm is as funtionally good as a paralysed one, and offers health and lifestyle benefits, why shouldn't the patient have their "real" arm amputated in preference for a cybernetic unit? You may have previously thought this was a non-serious concept best left to science fiction, but as these experiments point out it really isn't.

How would you feel about meeting someone with these systems, perhaps even shaking their hand before realizing? What, if any, is the religious position on this matter? Would legal mandates have to but in place to regulate the strength of a cyborg arm? What if an arm malfunctions and harms someone?

Odd as it sounds, this sort of robotic advance really is likely to be part of everyday life soon enough. And there are even stranger plans afoot to replace much more than an arm with a robot unit. A Russian effort is underway to build a lifelike android that's somewhat like the Geminoid series from Japan:

It's in its early stages, as you can see, but the team has a roadmap: By 2020 they want to create a fully-working human-like android. And then by 2050 they want to place a powerful computer inside, and then "transplant" a real human mind into it.

Compared to the advanced medical science of the Brown experiments, this is pseudo-scientific sillyness...although the walking, moving, human-like android plan is totally plausible if you consider how advanced an Asimo- or Petman-descendant would be in, say, 20 years. And assuming we make more advances in connecting the human mind to external robotic limbs over the next several decades, there's the possibility of replacing much more than an arm with a robot subsititute. 

And that raises the biggest question which, while comfortably far off in the future, isn't beyond the plausible in your lifespan: If you had a medical emergency that damaged too much of your body, how robotic would you go?

[Image: Flickr user gordontarpley]

Chat about this news with Kit Eaton on Twitter and Fast Company too.