International Journal of Ronotics Vol. 1, Issue 1

[original image]

Three things that aren’t robots, rated relative to a household thermostat.

Many humans remain worried that robots will soon come to take their jobs, seize control of institutions, or simply decide that the time of humans has gone on far too long already. On the other hand, techno-optimists like myself look forward to engaging with wholly different architectures of minds unconstrained by biology, and as capable automation continues to erode the jobs that can be best done by humans, we can all look forward to careers as artisan baristas selling fancy coffees back and forth to each other. For the most part, robot experts and comic artists alike are of the mind that the robot apocalypse is still a ways off. But that doesn’t stop an equally insidious menace lurking at research labs across the globe: non-robot machines masquerading as robots.

I think it stands to reason that not everything in the universe can be a robot, so we should make some effort to accurately organize the things we encounter into categories ‘robots’ and ‘not-robots.’ Here I will use the term ‘ro-not’ for things that are called robots by their creators but are in fact some other thing in the not-robot category.

This may seem pedantic, but it is actually emblematic of general problems of misplaced incentives in scientific research. By choosing terms not on the basis of clarity and accuracy, but rather for how impressive they sound in a press release, we mislead and erode public confidence and literacy in science. This is a bad thing that we should try to dissuade.

So what is a robot? Although many machines are robot-like, it should be easy to assess how close to being a robot a thing is. Put simply, A robot must be a machine that is able to sense its environment and change its behavior accordingly. That’s it, the bar is not set unreasonably high. An industrial robot arm blindly following a pre-computed path doesn’t fit this definition, but add a sensor used to halt operation when a human enters the danger zone and it does.

Below I’ll rate 3 of these so-called robots on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being a “slinky”, 5 being a thermostat, and 10 being a fully sapient machine. These are all called ‘robots’ by their creators, and often published in robotics-specific journals, despite none of the machines below rising above the sentience of a thermostat. That’s not to say that the machines or their inventors are, uh, not good, or even that they shouldn’t publish their devices in robotics journals, but rather we should all learn to call a spade a spade and an actuator an actuator.

Vine robots.

Original article: “A soft robot that navigates its environment through growth.” Science Robotics  Vol. 2, Issue 8. 19 Jul 2017.

At first glance this machine looks like an inside-out balloon, but on closer inspection you’ll notice that it is in fact an inside out balloon. The video demonstrates using the appendenge to turn off a valve in a simulated “I left the poisonous gas valve on” situation (happens to us all), and with a camera attached the thing appears to be phototropic. Turns out this is misleading, however, and in fact the pattern of the plastic expandables is pre-programmed by adding tape or otherwise constraining the walls of the plastic before inflating.

Rating: 2.5/10. Amended publication title: “An inside-out plastic balloon that can follow preprogrammed inflation routes.”

Soft robot octopus.

Original article: “An integrated design and fabrication strategy for entirely soft, autonomous robots” Nature 536, 451–455 (25 August 2016)

This machine is an interesting pneumatic device molded out of PDMS to look like a cute octopus. It is fully capable of wiggling it’s arms and blowing bubbles, and the blue and red coloring of the hydrogen peroxide solution that powers it makes it look pretty cool. The “octobot” alternates raising half of its appendages at a time, and the coolest thing about it is that it does so with a microfludic circuit. In addition to powering the arms, each of the two channels feeding the arms also powers a valve that restricts fuel flow to the other channel. The designers deem this device the “first fully autonomous soft robot,” however, its alternating arm-raising seems to be a futile movement (it does not seem to move) and it also doesn’t appear to be able to respond to its environment in any significant way. The “microfluidic logic” oscillator is pretty cool: the authors claim that this makes the machine fully autonomous because it is untethered, but neither is a slinky and I don’t call that a robot either.

Rating: (4.0/10). Amended title: “An integrated design and fabrication strategy for entirely cute, colorful oscillators.”

Amphibious bee robot.

Original article: “A biologically inspired, flapping-wing, hybrid aerial-aquatic microrobot.” Science Robotics. Vol. 2, Issue 11. Oct 2017. [paywalled]

There are a number of misleading aspects of how the press office and journalists portrayed this machine. The first thing you’ll notice in the video demonstrations are the tethers above and below the thing: clearly it is not operating under its own power. While tethering may be a bit uninspiring, there’s nothing in our robot-rule that says you have to carry your own batteries and compute everywhere to be considered a robot, so the tether itself doesn’t rule out potential robotness. On the other hand, in an interview with Science Friday the lead author describes her role in the operation of the device, which is that she makes all the decisions and activates each mode of operation manually (the wings move at a different frequency for swimming and flight, for example). The device also can’t fly when it’s wet, which is a bit misleading and seemed to be the whole point of being an amphibious bee instead of being an air-only or water only winged device. One particularly cool thing about this device is that it uses a small explosion to break the grip of surface tension at the water’s surface, powered by hydrogen and oxygen gas generated in an internal chamber by electrolysis.

Rating (3/10). Amended title: “A university press office-inspired, flapping-wing, hybrid aerial-aquatic device that explodes a bit.”

I wouldn’t argue that any of the above are, uh, not good. In fact they may be quite cool as what they are and could potentially be put to good use as part of a robot. Disagree with my ratings or definition of a robot? Let me know in the comments or @theScinder. If you are involved in any of these projects and have expanded on the original device to meet the robot criteria above, let me know and I’ll add an update.

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