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A photo of a dozen small round robots with containers for items attached to a whiteboard
Mengni Zhang

I don’t know about you, but being stuck at home during the pandemic made me realize two things. Thing the first: My entire life is disorganized. And thing the second: Organizing my life, and then keeping organized, is a pain in the butt. This is especially true for those of us stuck in apartments that are a bit smaller than we’d like them to be. With space at a premium, Mengni Zhang, a Ph.D. student at Cornell’s Architectural Robotics Lab, looked beyond floor space. Zhang wants to take advantage of wall space—even if it’s not easily reachable—using a small swarm of robot shelves that offer semiautonomous storage on demand.

During the pandemic I saw an increased number of articles advising people to clean up and declutter at home. We know the health benefits of maintaining an organized lifestyle, yet I could not find many empirical studies on understanding organizational behaviors, or examples of domestic robotic organizers for older adults or users with mobility impairments. There are already many assistive technologies, but most are floor based, which may not work so well for people living in small urban apartments. So, I tried to focus more on indoor wall-climbing robots, sort of like Roomba but on the wall.

The main goal was to quickly build a series of functional prototypes (here I call them SORT, which stands for “Self-Organizing Robot Team”) to conduct user studies to understand different people's preferences and perceptions toward this organizer concept. By helping people declutter and rearrange personal items on walls and delivering them to users as needed or wanted while providing some ambient interactions, I’m hoping to use these robots to improve quality of life and enhance our home environments.

This idea of intelligent architecture is a compelling one, I think—it’s sort of like the Internet of Things, except with an actuated physical embodiment that makes it more useful. Personally, I like to imagine hanging a coat on one of these little dudes and having it whisked up out of the way, or maybe they could even handle my bike, if enough of them work together. As Zhang points out, this concept could be especially useful for folks with disabilities who need additional workspace flexibility.

Besides just object handling, it’s easy to imagine these little robots operating as displays, as artwork, as sun-chasing planters, lights, speakers, or anything else. It’s just a basic proof of concept at the moment, and one that does require a fair amount of infrastructure to function in its current incarnation (namely, ferrous walls), but I certainly appreciate the researcher’s optimism in suggesting that “wall-climbing robots like the ones we present might become a next ‘killer app’ in robotics, providing assistance and improving life quality.”

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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

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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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