Well, this has to be one of the weirdest things I've seen in a while. It's a robotic armpit, created by Kevin Grennan, a London-based designer. As with human armpits, it sweats. The idea is to use odors to improve human-robot interaction.
For example, you'd mount this thing onto a bomb-disposal robot (like a Talon, in the illustration below), and whenever you sent it in to disarm an explosive, the robot would start sweating, filling the air with the same sort of chemicals found in human sweat when we're afraid.
This may not the first robotic device to emulate the human underarm, but it's definitely the most repulsive and freakish looking. Grennan did this on purpose, explaining that he's interested in how "more complex and private parts of the human body would be translated onto [a] robot."
Here's how he describes the project:
Each robot that I have augmented with a 'sweat gland' emits a particular chemical that has a specific effect on humans and the chemical has been chosen to further enable the robot's primary function.
In the case of the bomb disposal robot the 'sweat gland' releases the smell of human fear. It has been proven that humans can identify this specific smell and it tends to enhance cognitive performance. I propose that this robot would enable surrounding humans to work more effectively and to differentiate dangerous situations from false alarms.
Grennan's armpit-enabled bomb-disposal robot concept:
He came up with a couple more sweating robot concepts, too:
The one on the left is a picker robot; the one on the right, a surgical robot. Grennan explains:
In the case of the picker robot. It releases a chemical called androstadienone, which is found in male sweat. This has be shown in research to effect mood in females under certain circumstances. I have speculated that this robot when used on a production line could enhance the performance of female employees in it's vicinity.
The third robot is a surgery robot. It releases a mist of oxytocin, a chemical found in the human brain. This chemical when inhaled nasally has been shown to cause people to become more trusting. I speculated that a patient could meet this robot before surgery and the chemical mist would cause the patient to trust in its abilities to a greater degree.
What's the point of all this? Grennan's goal, I suspect, is not so much to create a functional product as to provoke thought. As he puts it: "I hope that the dark thought of robots taking subconscious control of humans [via their emitted odors] will cause viewers to reflect on how we really want to interact with these machines in the future."
One of the things that I like about robots is that they take some of those features that are intrinsically biological (i.e. fear, and for that matter, stinkyness) and do away with them completely. That said, it's interesting to see the ways that robots are getting to be more like humans just as humans are getting to be more like robots. If you plotted those two trends on a graph along with an axis for time, at some point you'd find an intersection. As to just what exactly that's going to entail, well, your guess is as good as mine.
Images: Kevin Grennan