What the HAL?


I love the way Japan and Korea are developing robotics. I used to say that the Japanese were great engineers but not that great at innovating, I think that perhaps those thoughts should be banished to the dim past.

I’ve written a few blogs on robotics, such as about the plans in Korea to have a domestic robot in every household between 2015 and 2020, ironically I mentioned HAL9000 from 2001 A Space Oddysey in that blog.

The latest innovation greeting the media this week has been the new Japanese Robot suit from Cyberdine, also called HAL, but this one is a robotic prosthesis. HAL stands for Hybrid Assistive Limb and uses the faint nerve impulses when your brain tries to control weak or damaged limbs.

This technology has been under development for several years, but it looks like it is ready or the market, as demonstrated in this video taken recently in a Japanese hospital.

What seems remarkable to me is that this robot will soon be available for purchase in Japan for a little over US$4,000! This means that these devices will be accessible for less than the cost of an average surgery and could perhaps be of major assistance to people on waiting lists for hip replacement or other limb operations.

One of the great features is that the exosceleton, if I can call it that, supports its own weight, so isn’t an extra burden on the person wearing it. This offers people with disabilities an amazing opportunty to live and do ordinary, but also extraodinary things. For example during testing 2 years ago, Seiji Uchida, a quadraplegic was able was able to climb a mountain on the back of a climber using a HAL suit.

Of course this brings in the Six Million Dollar Man question. If this is what disabled people can do, what could able bodied people achieve with one of these?

Of course the military have been working on projects like these for a long time. DARPA have for several years been working on exoskeletons that can help people carry more weight, run faster and of course have much more strength when needed.

Other scenarios where these could be used would be in civil emergencies such as earthquake rescue, where immediate strength could speed the release of people trapped under rubble.

The immediate opportunity is to alleviate suffering of people with injuries or issues such as arthritis, but there are likely to be lots of people queuing up for the opportunity to become super people, or perhaps super heroes, or of course super criminals, but I don’t want to go there.

Day to day operations of emergency services could also benefit from this technology. In the hands of fire services, police, paramedics and others, this technology could be brilliant.

I want a domestic Robot


I’m not into singularity, I reckon if we built a robot that has the ability to think in similar ways to humans, they will see us as illogical and like HAL 9000, will consider that it knows better than us what is good for us. But the idea of robots that can take away some of the drudgery of domestic chores, makes a lot of sense. 

In previous blogs I’ve written about the stories we were told in Tomorrow’s Schools when I was a junior futurist, where technology would do all the work and leave us to worry about what to do with our leisure time. This of course didn’t happen, so now I find myself working no less than 50 hours a week and begruding having to spend a lot of my weekends doing chores around the house. 

So the concept of having a robot that vaccuums my house, mows the lawn, washes windows and genrally keeps my home looking spotless, makes a lot of sense. New Zealand isn’t one of those countries where professionals employ housekeepers, most of us have to fend for ourselves. I have many interests including walking, skiing, writing songs, going to concerts, playing poker etc. In my ideal world, there would be no house work, unless it was because it is what I really want to do, although I can’t imagine why, unless it was a green moment in my rock garden.

Korea has been looking at the area of robotics and particularly for domestic use, although defense and medicine are other major opportunities for them and I guess military and surgical robots combined with nanotechnology do offer hugely attractive revenue potential. Korea has been very innovative and when it comes to high tech electronics is right up there with the leaders.

A few years ago the Korean Government made a commitment to have a domestic robot in every home between 2015 and 2020. 

Domestic robots have now come under the term of Personal Robots. Personal robots have been conceived to do everything from bring you a beer, to teaching children to learn languages and help with their homework. There is even an Institute for Personal Robots in Education! 

MIT has a Personal Robots Group, which is exploring many aspects of technology and also human – robot interaction. As well as exploring the many technologies that are involved in developing this technology, they are focussing on what sort of things people would want them to be able to do and ensuring that they can adapt to new tasks, not considered in the initial design.

If you think that buying a domestic robot is over the top and frivolous, maybe security is a good opportunity for you. Imagine your robot, with wireless communications and the ability to transmit  what is going on anywhere in your home, controlled via your mobile. You could see if you left the stove on, whether Johnny is doing his homework, or check the house if the alarm goes off. If it went off because you left your cat inside, it could herd it towards the cat door. It wouldn’t get frustrated and impatient.

While this may all seem very futuristic, as I said at the beginning of this blog, Korea is planning for a domestic robot in every home within the next 9 years, Honda, who gave us Asimo (named after Isaac Asimov who invented the 3 Laws of Robotics) have now come up with a new version, which can be successfully controlled by human thought!  

 

The new Asimo from Honda

The new Asimo from Honda

Given that one of the biggest spends for robots is for military use, which I will explore in a future blog, and an expectation that singularity will happen in the next 20 years, I’ll leave the last word to Hal 9000:

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