The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

RoboBonobo: Giving Apes Control of Their Own Robot

A robotic bonobo armed with a water cannon under the control of real bonobos? One thing's for sure: no human is safe

2 min read
RoboBonobo: Giving Apes Control of Their Own Robot

This is RoboBonobo. It's a robotic ape. It's got a water cannon on it, and it'll eventually be able to chase you around under the direct control of real bonobos wielding wireless keyboards and iPads. In other words, no human is safe. Anywhere. Ever.

The bonobos at Bonobo Hope Great Ape Trust Sanctuary in Des Moines, Iowa, have gotten comfortable communicating with humans through the use of sequences of visual lexigrams. The apes can take advantage of a vocabulary of nearly 400 different words (like "hello" or "tickle" or "burrito"), and their human caretakers are looking to expand the ways in which the bonobos are able to interact with humans and the outside world. The humans have already built a prototype for a robot that the bonobos will be able to control directly, using it to "play chase games or squirt guests with an on board water gun."

This project goes far beyond the robot, though. What Dr. Ken Schweller (a professor of computer science and psychology and chair of the Great Ape Trust) wants to do is develop a set of Internet-connected keyboards that the bonobos can carry around with them and use to communicate directly with humans. Humans, for their part, will be able to use an app that translates their speech directly to the symbols used by the bonobos, potentially opening up real-time two-way intelligent communication between you and another species.

RoboBonobo and Bonobo Chat are trying to raise $20,000 on Kickstarter; the funds will be used to "design, program, harden, and field-test the apps with bonobo testers and to connect them to robots and other external devices." That's a little bit unspecific for such a large sum of money (although we do know that the robot in the picture above will be getting a total redesign), but at least the $500 level reward is pretty awesome: you get to have a live Skype chat session with a bonobo, completely safe from rampaging RoboBonobos with water cannons.

[ RoboBonobo ]

Thanks Ken!

The Conversation (0)

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?

Keep Reading ↓Show less