30 strong fingers but still no happy ending for robotic back rub

Let a multi-limbed Meccano monster touch me? I'm crushed


Something for the Weekend, Sir? The future is a six-handed massage.

Apparently some engineers have sidestepped the conventional uses for robotics – stealing your job and exterminating the human race – by putting several additional arms at the disposal of adventurous masseurs.

So the claim goes, anyway: it's an example of how next month's HUBOT exhibition in Eindhoven during Dutch Design Week wants us to think about human-robot interaction: kinder, gentler applications that won't, er... rub us up the wrong way.

"The Shiva physiotherapist massages with her own hands" – it says here, proving that workplace gender neutrality has yet to reach The Netherlands – "but for the heavy work she has four additional robotic arms at her disposal."

Now that sounds like a lot more fun than undergoing systematic elimination by Cyberdyne T-800 Model 101s. Not so much "I'll be back" as "I'll rub your back".

Arachnophobia issues aside, the visual image conjured by the idea of physical recuperation under the careful attentions of a six-limbed augmented human is pretty strange. It seems all terribly Ghost In The Shell, and therein lies the hidden cultural challenge that robotics can present.

For a westerner like me, a typical cliché of robotics is the idea of a huge, clunky, industrial affair like you see on car assembly lines. No matter how dextrous and grateful it has been designed to be, I expect it to go berserk at any second, requiring military intervention to bring to a halt.

For example, take the Swiss-designed Yumi IRB 14000 industrial robot, which I filmed here at the Science Museum in London as it showed off what a smart-arse it is.

Youtube Video

Very dainty, I'm sure, but all I can think of is how those pincers could suddenly snap me like a twig just for fun to round off a session of Swiss effleurage. No happy ending for me.

This is all very silly: robots aren't like that at all. Rather than inadvertently switching from its default "Sew A Button" mode to a "Tear Limbs Off All Humans" subroutine that a mischievous programmer cut and pasted from GitHub, a real-life robot has different objectives.

What a robot really wants is your money. It does this not by tearing off limbs but by ripping off your data.

This process doesn't have to be malicious, either. The Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner from the unimaginatively named iRobot Corporation builds maps of your home as it carries out its daily cleaning duties. Almost literally, it sucks up your data along with the dust. Knowing where it's going is what makes Roomba better than autonomous vacuum cleaners that bumble about aimlessly using collision detection alone.

The worrying bit is that iRobot's CEO Colin Angle hints that Roomba's maps could potentially be sold to other companies. What for, you might wonder.

Perhaps it's a way to disrupt the burglary industry: sell the maps on the open market to aid house-breakers find their way about my home in the dark.

OK, iRobot probably wouldn't do that without your permission. No doubt there is a paragraph about it hidden away in the depths of Roomba's T&Cs that requires you to "untick if you don't not want your map data not to be not unused" etc.

Another cliché of robotics is the prototype that to all intents and purposes appears to be constructed out of sawn-off Meccano, exposed cogs and spinning razor blades. You wouldn't want to pick one up. You might just poke it with a stick and hope it doesn't jump at you out of spite.

It's worse if you're actually wearing the bloody thing. Bionic limbs and exoskeletons look scary as shit, not because they look alien but because they look like they'll graze, slice and puncture your skin if you get too close. It's as if university robotics researchers worldwide have learnt everything they know about industrial design from watching Edward Scissorhands.

3D printing has gone a certain way towards altering these perceptions by skinning the Meccano with what looks like melted candlewax. That would certainly take the edge off the robot rebellion when it comes: the gentle flickering illumination and subtle scent of lavender could lend a calming touch of hygge to the obliteration of humanity, which would be nice.

It helps when the robot, or even just one artificial limb, is properly anthropomorphic. Then you can forget all the weird sticky-out bits and marvel at its grace of movement – ITK's Handroid being an impressive example. In July, I filmed Handroid at Hyper Japan in London, going through the paces as a human operator progressively taught it how to move.

Youtube Video

Of course, the biggest problem with Handroid is its name: it sounds like a sex toy.

"A Rampant Rabbi, madam? Certainly. Yes, missus, we also have the rechargeable Eggstacy II in stock. And for you sir, will you be visiting town alone? Then may I suggest the Handroid?"

Perhaps it's a language thing; perhaps it's just me. Come on, I can't be the only person to snigger at the French wind turbine maintenance company that decided to call itself My Wind Parts.

No, before I let Shiva give me a good fisting – i.e. pressing her fists into my aching shoulders – I would like her additional robotic appendages to be smoothed out and humanised. A lot of advancement in product design will have to take place before I'd trust Doc Oc to give me safe shiatsu.

Until then, the very thought of trusting my tender joints to the whims of robotically enhanced chiropractors is terrifying enough for me to require some maintenance to my wind parts.

Maybe the next generation will do better.

Youtube Video

Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He wishes to apologise to those who attended the 2000AD script-writing competition at last weekend's Thought Bubble festival in Leeds and had their opportunity of a lifetime hijacked by his stuttering elevator pitch for an idiotic story. The fact that one judge observed "Wouldn't that be better in MAD Magazine?" said it all.

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