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The Future is Yesterday

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Four terrifying advances in robotics (and the like) that have already happened

The life of most people in developed nations probably seems a lot like the science fiction of yore: computers can tell us where we are and how to get wherever we want, we can talk with people across the world without so much as a cord, and we can fly through the air faster than sound. But where are the robot suits, androids and cyborgs? Well, if you’ve been following robotics (it may be best not to divulge an enthusiastic “yes” answer), you know that they are already here. Yes, the future is now—except that it already happened… so the future is the past… which must mean you are way behind on things. For some unholy reason, I still do not have a flying car, but read on to find four examples (in order of how much they frighten me) of how some of our other dorky dreams have already come true.

Hybrid Assisted Limb (HAL-5)

A Japanese firm called Cyberdyne can sell you a super-strength suit for about $4,200. (Strap a jetpack on there and you are halfway to fulfilling your lifelong dream of being Iron Man.)

The Hybrid Assisted Limb (or, if you prefer movie-related terrifying acronyms, HAL) enhances the wearer’s strength by up to ten times, or lifts about 330 pounds (reports seem to vary). It weighs roughly 30 pounds and can operate continuously for just under three hours. The suit is battery powered and not as obtrusive as one might imagine. According to creator and Cyberdyne founder Yoshiyuki Sankai, HAL straps onto the wearer’s body and uses sensors that pick up the electrical signals from the brain to interpret and precede movements of the arms and legs. Allow me to rephrase that: HAL reads nerve signals to predict movements as they happen and increase strength tenfold. Also, this thing has already been around for about four years.

So why haven’t we seen tons of these suits around, helping countless manual laborers and the disabled? (For all I know, they might be all over the place in Japan. Maybe over there, people are just lifting cars off of accident victims and hurling elephants for fun while we Americans don’t want to fork over a few grand to be magical action heroes.) Cyberdyne’s website claims that the company is dedicated to developing technology that helps mankind, but maybe they have just been selling them off to dictators in the market for armies of super-soldiers…

Rob Spence 
(the Human Camera?)

Ever feel like you are being watched? Well, chances are pretty good that it’s true. (Yeah, I know: if you want to be a real Semantics Nazi about it, people are watching you all the time. You know, with their eyes.) But what if one of your friends could record that vision? Well, such a strange and futuristic idea has already come into fruition. Welcome, once again, to the future.

Filmmaker Rob Spence lost an eye to a childhood shooting accident (boy, if that doesn’t need elaboration…) and is replacing it with a prosthetic eye that contains a mini-camera that can be operated using his eye socket muscles. The project was greatly assisted by Steve Mann of MIT, who, along with Spence, fitted the eye with a battery, a wireless transmitter, and a camera usually used by hospitals to look up your rectum. This was all done so that Spence could use the eye-camera to shoot a forthcoming documentary about surveillance cameras. (Ironic much?)

Spence claims that he will always show the subjects any footage he has taken, and get their permission to use it on film—but what if someone follows suit and isn’t so scrupulous? Or, what about the fact that Spence could very well be taping anyone he comes in contact with whenever he likes? Perhaps Spence should set up an interview with the CIA if this whole film thing doesn’t work out…

Big Dog

Imagine a small, black, headless deer tromping through a forest, and you’ll have a fairly accurate mental image of Big Dog, a fully capable, rough-terrain quadruped robot. Oh, and imagine it with a luggage: Big Dog can walk across rubble, beaches, mud and even ice, all while carrying 340 pounds. Now this may not sound that scary, but the popular video released by Boston Dynamics, the MIT spin-off who created Big Dog, reveals how frightening it is to see a robot so menacing and capable.

Walking robots have appeared jerky and unstable in the past, often unable to cope with steep grades or uneven surfaces, so try not to be shocked when you watch Big Dog right itself after being shoved or catch its weight when slipping on ice. Boston Dynamics, who completed Big Dog about a year ago, claims it was created in the hopes of developing a robot that could go anywhere people or animals could go. Their website shows illustrations of mass-produced versions carrying gear for soldiers on foot and innocently carrying bags over mountainous ridges. My first thought, though, was “340 pounds is a lot of artillery.”

The versatility of the beast, coupled with the fact that it can traverse 12.8 miles without stopping or refueling, means this could easily be a very expensive, remote-controlled bomb delivery service.

More research in Boston Dynamics shows some other impressive/creepy robots, as well. They have constructed a robot that uses “micro-claws” to scale walls and trees, and are developing a fully robotic humanoid (its name is Petman… seriously), that can balance itself, walk, crawl and perform “suit-stressing calisthenics” for… testing protective clothing. (A fully functioning robot to test out new uniforms? Yeah right.)

But let’s not forget RHex, a small, six-limbed robot who can run across any terrain with all the stealth and grace of a hyperactive Chihuahua. Its semi-circular arms slap wildly at the ground until forward movement is achieved, though it is worth noting that this sucker can swim at the surface of or under water. Though RHex may be destined for a Tyco R/C buyout, the rest of Boston Dynamics’ portfolio has Terminator-esque military nightmare written all over it.

HRP-4C

Answering a question that nobody asked, Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology has revealed HRP-4C, a robot designed to look like the average Japanese woman. HRP stands at about 5 feet and, through a complex system of 30 motors, can walk around, bow and gesture. The proto-android is covered in grey and black paneling, save for its hands and head; the latter of which contains 8 more motors for blinking, speaking and awkwardly emoting.

There is no doubt that HRP-4C is an extraordinary example of today’s most impressive robotic projects, but the robot itself is pretty creepy. The movements of the body and especially the face are complex by robot standards, but awkward—if not frightening—when compared to humans. The robot rests safely in the valley between something that looks and acts robotic and a fully convincing simulated person, so it seems harmless… for now. But one must conclude that this is really just the beginning for fake person technology.

HRP kicked off Japan’s Fashion Week last week, garnering headlines like “Japan’s Latest Supermodel—A Robot.” But the fashion industry probably wouldn’t like how short “she” is (on the other hand, it weighs in at only 95 pounds), and HRP’s creators insist that it is not advanced enough for a full catwalk strut. Similarly, those who want a new office assistant or something to do their household chores likely have many more years to wait. Associated Press says that HRP-4C’s components will sell at about $200,000 without a face, and that its technology will be made public so people can create new movements for the robot. HRP’s current fate is likely more akin to amusement park guide or exercise instructor. But one has to wonder how long it will be until the sex toy industry gets their hands on one to program some, er, moves of their own.

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