I, Roboticist

I wanted a robot butler, so I built one

5 min read

Since their earliest days, robots have been hopefully imagined as charming domestic servants, cheerfully serving beer or cocktails to their human masters [see photo, "Then..."]. Twenty-three years ago, Heathkit Co. released the first real attempt to deliver on that dream: its Hero line of home robots. Not surprisingly, their 8-bit processors, minimal onboard memory, and limited ability to sense their surroundings meant that humanity still found itself getting up and going to the fridge whenever it wanted a cold one.

But in the past few years, a new genus of home robots is making the dream seem less fanciful. Entertainment bots like the endearing Sony AIBO pet dog, floor-cleaning automatons like iRobot Corp.'s Roomba, and general-purpose home robots like the US $1200 PC-Bot, from White Box Robotics Inc., often have enough processing power to execute interesting programs, such as voice recognition or vision-based navigation. They also have enough payload capacity to carry useful attachments such as personal sound systems and gripper arms, rather than just a cup of your favorite beverage.

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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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