This Week In Bots: I Compute, Therefore I Am

Robotic prison guards that are meant to look friendly to inmates. For real. And that’s far from all in the latest edition of TWIB.



Floppy Starfish Bot

Soft-shelled robots have popped up from time to time, but none perhaps have been as amazing as this new innovation from Harvard. It’s a super-floppy starfish-esque robot that can crawl, maneuver, and wiggle its way along the ground…and can also squirm its way into tight spaces and even through tiny holes. Just like the worms of your squirmiest nightmares! Enjoy!

The robot is just five inches long, pneumatically powered and was designed to replicate the motions of a real sea creature. It was funded by Pentagon research, which indicates that there are inevitable military/covert surveillance goals in mind–such a bot would be ideal for making its way into buildings undetected, due to its potentially quieter locomotion–but there are also evidently uses in post-disaster scenarios, particularly in the case of collapsed buildings after earthquakes.

Quadrocopter Builders


In an exhibition to demonstrate one future of building design and fabrication, a fleet of quadrocopters will execute a complex arial ballet to build a six-meter-high tower out of 1,500 polystyrene blocks–lifting each brick in turn, flying to the right position, awaiting their turn, then planting the brick. The show is happening in Orléans in France from today, designed by a Italian-Swiss team of architects and roboticists.

The most remarkable thing is that 50 quadrocopters will be flying in the air space in all sorts of cleverly optimized directions and speeds, monitored by a motion-sensing computer that assess the situation 370 times a second, and refines the flight path of each flying machine. 

Quite apart from the impressive nature of the build, the art installation is designed to showcase how flying machines may one day help in the construction of actual buildings here on earth (with perhaps less risk to life an limb for construction engineers on skyscraper projects) or even on other planets–thinking particularly of Mars, where building big habitation structures may be tricky for space-suited astronauts.

Robotic Prison Guards


We’ve covered all sorts of robots at Fast Company, and even the psuedo-robotic machines called telepresence droids that let remote workers maintain a physical presence in an office, or doctors faces to appear at a remote patient’s bedside. South Korea has incredible plans to pull off a half-robotic, half-telepresence trick in its jails. Robots will roam the corridors, checking inside cells and making sure prisoners aren’t misbehaving–including violent or suicidal behavior. 

A month-long trial period of the five-foot-tall machines in one jail begins in March, and if successful it could easily lead to more being rolled out across the robot-friendly nation. Interestingly enough while the bots are designed to lighten the burden on human guards, they’re not supposed to be intimidating–the design team is currently working on making them look friendly to inmates.

Robot Sees Itself

Qbo is a small research and education robot platform that has mainly locomotion, object recognition, and speech synthesis skills … and now it has a limited form of something that one day may be key to robot evolution: self-awareness. Researchers at Thecorpora (which makes the robot) realized they could train Qbo to recognize not just the faces of people it deals with, but also its own face when seen in a mirror. The bot, on spotting itself, is pre-programmed to deliver a simple message, “Oh this is me, nice.”


Self-recognition in mirrors is something we use as a guide to genuine intelligence in animals. We do it, naturally, and so do dolphins, primates and elephants. But when your dog or cat spot themselves in a mirror they’re not thinking “that’s me, in a mirror” in quite the same way.

Of course Qbo has no real intelligence, so this is a trick. But it does indicate all sorts of future moral and ethical questions that’ll have to be tackled when a robot really does look in a mirror and see itself, understanding what that means. That whooshing sound you just heard was every human in the world shivering at once.

Robot Flight Sim

An Australian Department of Defence project at the Centre For Intelligent Systems Research has created what may be considered the ultimate in real-feel flight simulators: a carriage on the end of a giant robot arm that whirls a human pilot around to simulate all sorts of aerial maneuvers–ones that more traditional sims just can’t compete with. So many realistic rolls, yaws and dives in fact that it’s called the Haptically-Enabled Universal Motion Simulator. The device can even pull up to 6G, which is equivalent to tight combat flying turns and is otherwise only accessible in a centrifuge.


The idea is to chain them together to give pilots as realistic an experience of dogfighting as possible without risking life and limb (and taxpayer dollars) in a training aircraft. If only they were working on an arcade game version.


Now this isn’t technically a robot, apart from the cute way the device folds its chassis in on itself robotically when its put into its super-compact “parking” mode, but it’s too fabulous to leave out as it’s fantastically sci-fi. Designed for a near future of electric commuter travel in the East’s busiest cities, the concept electric Kobot vehicles from Kowa-Tmsuk are all about green transport, composite material construction, speedy transport, and minimal-space parking.

And I want one.


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

About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise. I've also got a PhD, and worked in such roles as professional scientist and theater technician...thankfully avoiding jobs like bodyguard and chicken shed-cleaner (bonus points if you get that reference!)