You remember Mom used to warn you about not running with scissors? Did she ever tell you not to give sharp implements to robots? No? Well, not to worry–scientists are busy teaching ‘bots not to cut humans with knives. Wait…what?
This is hardcore science coming from the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics in Germany, and it’s specifically designed to investigate one very worrisome thing: Can a robot wielding a sharp tool for its job work out that it’s hitting the wrong target–i.e. delicate, fragile human flesh–and stop itself before it accidentally inflicts harm? This is a much more tricky collision avoidance system to test and put into action than the radar parking systems you see on some cars, thanks to the fact the machine has to detect that its cutting tool is not connecting with the right target, and that requires fine sensor powers and fast computing. Check out this video of a demonstration of a Volvo anti-crash system going amusingly wrong to see how hard it is to get this stuff working in cars, and then multiply this up to huge industrial robots with multi-axis arms and grippers and you can imagine the scale of the sensing/computing task we’re talking about here.
And then check out the video of the German research in action. Warning: Gore, of sorts, is visible in this clip. Make sure your lunch is long since digested.
To train robots with sharp blades not to cut flesh, of course it’s pretty necessary to work out how robot’s sensor’s feel when they do cut flesh. Hence the scenes of meaty severage in that clip. And, inevitably, a tiny tinkle being sounded by the robot alarm bell at the back of my mind: We’re busy training robots to know if they’re cutting a body? Hmmm. And the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics is part of the German aerospace company DLR that also does defense contracts? Oh–kay. I think I might go find a nice quiet desert island to retreat to…