This Week In Bots: When Dying Alone, A Robot’s Cold Comfort Can Be Oddly Comforting

But this week’s TWIB is not a total bummer! See, also: jogging with a drone, leaping like a cockroach, and a swimming swumanoid.



Bot Vid: Jogging With A Drone

Joggobot has been in development for a while, but is all over the place this week, in part because it’s a clever idea that leverages current breakthroughs in quadrocopter tech. It’s been developed by RMIT University in Australia as a way for runners and joggers to take a motivational “coach” out on runs with them if there’s no human collaborator available. It’s a smart sensor-equipped quadrocopter drone that uses vision systems to recognize its jogging partner and keep a good distance ahead of them, and you can program it to keep pace with you companionably or to push you in a more aggressive way.

Bot Vid: Leaping Like A Cockroach

Cockroaches are disgusting when discovered in the wrong place (i.e. your kitchen), but they do have some amazing powers–like their purported ability to survive a nuclear strike. They are also remarkably good at running off the edge of a surface without falling down–a trick that could be invaluable for search and rescue bots needing high maneuverability, and for surveillance bots that have to scurry and hide before being detected. That’s prompted a team at UC Berkeley to design the Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod, or DASH, which uses Velcro to mimic the hooks a cockroach uses to pull off its trick, as part of a bigger effort looking at robot acrobatics.


Bot Vid: A Swimming Swumanoid

Many folks have gotten quite good at building robots that swim–but not a lot of them can do it like humans, and that has implications for designing and testing systems that aid swimmers. Which is where Japan’s Swumanoid comes in. Swumanoid is designed to swim in a human fashion–this should help lead to better experiments looking at water resistance, propulsion power and even performance-enhancing swimwear. According to Plastic Pals, some results from research produced by the robot are due in August, so you’ll get to see this guy again soon.


Bot News

Robot fish work out. Robotic fish stories pop up in TWIB from time to time, but new research from the Polytechnic Institute of New York University and Italy’s Instituto Superiore di Sanitá lends great credence to the idea. The teams built a crude zebrafish robot, and placed it in an experiment with real fish. The live zebrafish preferred their own company to that of the robot, when in schools. But when alone, they preferred to swim alongside the robot rather than roam an empty tank at will. 

China robots do well. Reuters reports that China’s manufacturing industry is increasingly turning to robots to boost its production line efficiency. Robots don’t get hurt, go on strike, demand more pay, or take leave. As China’s manufacturing power helps it spread its influence globally, its workers are increasingly pressuring for change and greater pay. 

U.S. robots to defeat Chinese workers. Apple’s Tim Cook is under pressure from those who see his company’s reliance on Chinese workers as letting down factory workers back home. But one way U.S. manufacturing does stand a hope is via increasing robotization–and the Pentagon has funded a Georgia Tech spinoff to build robot sewing machines as an experiment in boosting domestic production. The question is: since this doesn’t necessarily boost U.S. jobs, where are the robots made?

Bot Futures: How Robots Will Comfort The Lonely As They Lay Dying

Surrounded by loved ones, or slipping painlessly away while asleep–when thinking about the unpleasant business of shuffling off this mortal coil, those seem like good ways to go. Not many of us, I’d guess, would opt for: alone in an empty hospital room with nothing but a robot speaking to me in synthesized tones, doing its best to caress my arm.


And yet that’s exactly the kind of question raised by a project from engineer-artist Dan Chen, with his Last Minute Robot. CNET has a fascinating report on the machine, which is intended to provoke a debate and discussion about this most uncomfortable of topics. The robot’s very simple, and blurts out platitudes, apologies, clichés and calming adivce in what’s intended to be a soothing way. It’s even got a padded “limb” that will pat and stroke a dying patient’s outstretched arm in that most reassuring of gestures that says “you are not alone.”

The thing is, in this scenario you most definitely are alone–there’s just a cold pile of electronics by your side. It’s not sentient, it doesn’t have any artificial intelligence, it’s not even particularly smart–simply trotting out simple phrases and performing one perfunctory physical act. It is not capable of empathy and sympathy. 

But does this matter? If a machine gives comfort to the dying why should we care what it’s made of?

Questions like this may seem strange. They may evoke odd images from Futurama, or Vonnegut’s 2BR02B. But they’re becoming increasingly relevant. In Japan, the disastrous tsunami and earthquake of 2011 resulted in many people, particularly of the older generation, experiencing trauma. And it was found that interacting with a robotic seal, Papero–which is essentially a slightly sophisticated teddy bear–actually helped them feel better. Papero provoked a genuine, undeniably positive emotional response that boosted happiness in people who would otherwise have felt more sad.


There are many other robotic efforts in progress to aid the sick and elderly in hospitals and at home, particularly in Japan where the aging population is presenting the threat of an asymmetric strain on society. And robot medical assistance makes great sense in many other ways, because it could be harder, for example, for a robot nurse to drop a patient while carrying them. Robot telepresence for doctors also allows an immediate personal consult, with all the reassuring human touches of speaking to someone, with a specialist in your illness who may be the best available–albeit thousands of miles away.

All this tech is a far cry from the simplicity of the Last Minute Robot, but it’s very, very easy to take the advances made in this field of robotics and medicine and imagine a near future when a more sophisticated version of LMR really is serving that last minute purpose for the needy.

[Image: Flickr user cherriemio]

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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!)