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One of the most profound questions of engineering, arguably, is whether we will ever create human-level consciousness in a machine. In the meantime, robots continue to take tiny little bot steps in the direction of faux humanity. Take Quasi, for instance, a robot dreamed up by Carnegie Mellon students that mimics the behavior of a 12-year-old boy [see "Heart of a New Machine" by Kim Krieger, in this issue]. Quasi's "moods" depend on what?s been happening in his environment, but rather than being driven by prepubescent biology, they are architected by an elaborately scripted software-based behavioral model that triggers his responses. Quasi lets you know how he's "feeling" through the changing colors of his LED eyes and his body language.

Other technologies are emulating more straightforward human traits. In the 9 June issue of Science, Vivek Maheshwari and Ravi F. Saraf of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln described their invention of a sensor that could allow robots to perceive temperature, pressure, and texture with exquisite sensitivity. Their sensor can detect surface details to within a pressure of about 10 kilopascals and distinguish features as small as 40 micrometers across?a sensitivity comparable to that of a human finger.

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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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