Attack of the Robot Bears

Two different companies have decided that robots with "comforting" "teddy bear" faces are perfect for moving patients in nursing home and hospital environments.

2 min read

When designing a robot designed to interact with people in difficult environments, it is a real challenge to make the robot accessible and friendly to humans. Too humanoid and you run the risk of entering the Uncanny Valley; too mechanical, and it's not comforting at all. Two different companies, Vecna Robotics and Japan's RIKEN, have decided that teddy bear-like robots are the way to go.

The BEAR -- Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot -- has been around for a few years and has even put in some conference appearances, but I haven't seen it move before. Vecna -- who has also just won some funding for continued research on its robot -- recently released a video showing testing of the BEAR alongside computer animation of its intended battlefield role. But the BEAR is also designed to be capable of lifting humans, an application which Vecna says it would like to market to hospitals and nursing homes, where lifting patients is one of the most difficult and common problems encountered by healthcare staff.

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By the way, Vecna has an entire YouTube channel, if you want to keep up with future BEAR videos.

The more recently announced robot is the RIBA -- Robot for Interactive Body Assistance. Developed jointly by a research lab and a company in Japan, the RIBA isn't designed for military applications like the BEAR, but does share the healthcare application and the teddy bear face. It can lift a 61kg (135 lbs), compared to the BEAR's theoretical 500 lbs.

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RIBA, I think, has the "teddy bear" thing going on a little better than the BEAR robot does, but I'm not feeling too warm and fuzzy about either of them. Are comforting character faces the way to go? Should we try harder to make humanoid robots friendly-looking? Or is there a better direction go to?

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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