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Foam Sword Fencing With a PR2 Is the Best Kind of Exercise

Adversarial robots could help humans exercise more effectively

2 min read
Foam sword fighting with a PR2
Screenshot: Boling Yang

Most of what we cover in the Human Robot Interaction (HRI) space involves collaboration, because collaborative interactions tend to be productive, positive, and happy. Yay! But sometimes, collaboration is not what you want. Sometimes, you want competition.

Competition between humans and robots doesn’t have to be a bad thing, in the same way that competition between humans and humans doesn’t have to be a bad thing. There are all kinds of scenarios in which humans respond favorably to competition, and exercise is an obvious example.

Studies have shown that humans can perform significantly better when they’re exercising competitively as opposed to when they’re exercising individually. And while researchers have looked at whether robots can be effective exercise coaches (they can be), there hasn’t been a lot of exploration of physical robots actually competing directly with humans. Roboticists from the University of Washington decided to put adversarial exercise robots to the test, and they did it by giving a PR2 a giant foam sword. Awesome.

This exercise game matches a PR2 with a human in a zero-sum competitive fencing game with foam swords. Expecting the PR2 to actually be a competitive fencer isn’t realistic because, like, it’s a PR2. Instead, the objective of the game is for the human to keep their foam sword within a target area near the PR2 while also avoiding the PR2’s low-key sword-waving. A VR system allows the user to see the target area, while also giving the system a way to track the user’s location and pose.

Looks like fun, right? It’s also exercise, at least in the sense that the user’s heart rate nearly doubled over their resting heart rate during the highest scoring game. This is super preliminary research, though, and there’s still a lot of work to do. It’ll be important to figure out how skilled a competitive robot should be in order to keep providing a reasonable challenge to a human who gradually improves over time, while also being careful to avoid generating any negative reactions. For example, the robot should probably not beat you over the head with its foam sword, even if that’s a highly effective strategy for getting your heart rate up.

Competitive Physical Human-Robot Game Play, by Boling Yang, Xiangyu Xie, Golnaz Habibi, and Joshua R. Smith from the University of Washington and MIT, was presented as a late-breaking report at the ACM/IEEE International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction.

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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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