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Making robots human

Donna Tam Mar 3, 2016
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A screenshot from a Disney video clip of "Big Hero 6,"a movie featuring a friendly health care robot named Baymax.
Donna Tam/Marketplace

In the Disney movie “Big Hero 6,” the young protagonist befriends a health-conscious robot named Baymax. The futuristic bot is covered in what looks to be a layer of flexible, squishy skin — making him more Stay Puft marshmallow man than Wall-E. But this skin is key to his functions; it transforms to help him perform tasks, like scan vitals and display information.

Although “Big Hero 6” is set in the future, a team of PhD students at Cornell University have developed a type of flexible “skin” that brings us one step closer to a robot like Baymax. The material is actually thin rubber sheets that can emit light and stretch to six times its size. A video of the material shows that it can be stretched, folded and rolled without breaking. 

GIPHY/Cornell University

Place it over a robotic frame and add sensors, and you’ll have a robot that can essentially “feel” things with its skin and relay information in form of colors, and eventually, images to express itself. Bryan Peele, a mechanical engineer and PhD student at Cornell who helped develop the “highly stretchable electroluminescent skin,” said it’s one way to make robots seem more human-like.

“If we’re going to have more pervasive robotics, how can humans engage and connect in a way that they feel safe and comfortable?” he said.

Peele and his team, funded by the Army Research Office, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the National Science Foundation,  published a paper on their findings in Science on Thursday. Robotics is a growing field and machines are steadily moving from factories into our everyday lives. This includes bots like the Roomba, which navigates and cleans homes, to video conferencing robots that roam the floors of companies. Business Insider Intelligence estimates that consumer and business robots will be a $1.5 billion market by 2019.

The rise of the machine comes cultural barriers. Consumers may see robots as creepy if they are too realistic. Peele said one way for people to feel more comfortable interacting with robots is providing robots a way to better communicate body language.

GIPHY/Cornell University

Typically humans program robots to act on verbal or written commands, but much of human communication is not written or verbal, Peele said.

“When someone is angry, you can see their faces getting red. When they are sad, maybe they’re getting more pale. A lot of communication is done through these itinerant cues,” he said, adding that this skin could allow robots to mimic and give cues back to humans. “If [the robot] made a mistake, maybe it will grow red in its cheeks because it’s embarrassed. You can have a more natural interface.”

Other researchers have developed similar skins over the last decade, but Peele said their material is the stretchiest so far. Last month, students from Wuhan University in China released a video of a robot chameleon that could camouflage into its surroundings.

In addition to soft robotics, the super-elastic skin is ideal for a multitude of applications, including mobile device screens, wearable tech and military equipment, Peele said. He described a world where you could stretch your smartphone into the size of a tablet for better viewing and then return it to its original size for easy storage. Or, you could add sensors to the skin and weave into clothing for the active monitoring of vital health signs while. Or, it could be made into a wearable display that wraps around your arm; one that lights up when you’re using it, but look like regular skin when you’re not.

Of course, these are all ideas for the future, but Peele said his team is currently developing more manufacturing techniques to make these uses a soon-to-be reality — maybe one where robots can also be our friends.

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