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Is telepresence the best application roboticists can come up with?

Several robotics companies are working on telepresence robots designed to help people communicate. I say: boring.

1 min read

Several robotics companies have been working on telepresence robots lately. I say: boring.

Is that what we want robots for? A robo-body that we can inpersonate to roam around the office when we're out? A toy robot to check that burglars didn't break into the house? A remote-controlled Roomba to check on our family and pets when we're traveling? (Scrap that last one: I forgot iRobot killed its ConnectR project.)

Consider Anybots, a Silicon Valley startup led by Trevor Blackwell. Last time we talked to him, he had a bold vision of using humanoids as personal servants that could clean up the table after dinner, take the garbage out, load our dirty socks into the washing machine. The robots would be remote controlled by human operators, which in a sense makes them telepresence robots. The difference is these telepresence robots weren't designed to just help people communicate -- they were designed to take care of household chores. Now that's an application!

Recently, though, Anybots has focused on telepresence robots to help office workers interact. Sure, Anybots is a business, they need to come up with things to sell, create revenue to invest in newer, better robots. Maybe their current office robot is a first step along the road to one day populate our homes with humanoid servants. Hey, Trevor, is that the plan?

Still, watching the video from the early post and then watching the video below got me a bit depressed. Which do you think represents a more exciting vision for the future of robotics?

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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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