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Monday, March 02, 2009

AI and Robots: Who Gave the Robot a Knife?

A few words first: To make it easier to find posts that interest you, I've added a search box to my blog (you probably have noticed it right above my post) that searches through all my blog posts but not anything outside of my blog. Just on the right side oft each post, you can also click on different blog labels to read my posts by category. At the end of each blog post, I've also included icons you can click to share the post with your friends using your favorite social network tools. Spread the good word if there's something you really enjoy! Okay, the real post starts below.

Robot arm stabbing a human volunteer with a knife 
(Photo credit: IEEE Spectrum)
At the ICRA 2010 conference (IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation) that is currently ongoing in Anchorage, Alaska, some German researchers presented their latest research on the biomechanics of soft-tissue injury caused by a knife-wielding robot. The paper is titled "Soft-tissue Injury in Robotics." In other words, they wanted to find out what will happen if a robot holding a sharp knife erroneously stabs a person.And, no, I am not joking. The robot arm in the picture on the right is really holding a knife, and it really stabbed the guy's arm with it.

These researchers are from the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics, part of DLR, the German aerospace agency, in Wessling, Germany, and they share the same dream with me --- that one day robots will be smart enough to take over kitchen duties and free us from the laborious duty of cooking. This task of course requires the robot to be able to handle a knife appropriately, so it can cut, chop, slide or dice during the course of preparing a meal. But what if it accidentally struck a human? With that question in mind, these researchers performed a series of experiment to investigate the severity of possible injuries and also designed a collision-detection to minimize the damage.

Various knives used in the experiments  
(Photo credit: IEEE Spectrum)
They mounted various sharp things, from knife to scissors to screwdriver (why does this somehow remind me of GTA San Andreas? Shudder!), to a DLR Lightweight Robot III, or LWRIII, a 7 degrees-of-freedom robot arm, and then tested the striking on a block of silicone, a pig's leg, and eventually, on the bare arm of a human volunteer. The collision-detection system turned out to be very successful, because the volunteer still has his arm.

The video below shows how the experiments were performed and how the robot arm performed differently with and without the collision-detection system (the real excitement is at the end of video). As a researching in Human-Robot Interaction myself, I couldn't help but imagine this poster in my head that reads, "Volunteer needed for a user study: Get Paid to be Stabbed by a Robot!"

But I am a little bit confused. Once turning on the collision-detection system, the robot will stop cutting/stabbing the human. The human is safe now, and so is that piece of steak! Three hours later, I'd be shouting in starved voice, "Where's my steak dinner?"

Note that the idea of a robot holding a knife would never be allowed in US universities. It would never get approval from the IRB (Institutional Review Board). See, we do things very differently here in the US, instead of knives, we give robots machine guns and missiles!! And there will be no danger to US citizens, because we send these robots to other countries! LOL!

MQ-9 Reaper Predator UAVSWORD Robot
I think I am a bit off topic now, so let's get back to these German researchers. If I remember correctly, I actually saw a video from HRI 2007 made by the same guy demonstrating how he would let a powerful robot arm punch him in the head (Sorry I am having a hard time finding this video now). The robot arm would VERY QUICKLY slow down when it detects the collision, thus sparing the guy's life. Well, hats off to the guy!! Comparing to him, I am a coward, because I would never put myself under such conditions --- because I am a terrible programmer, and I have lots of bugs in my code. And my admiration for him went sky-high when I realized they also performed the following experiments. Ouch!!

Anyway, I think it will be a long time before we actually have knife-wielding robots that roam our homes. When I program my robots, I actually intentionally make it not touch things such as knives, gas stoves, and explosives. But I bet you this day will eventually come, and a lot of lawyers are going to get rich.

Drinking excessive amount of Mountain Dew and staying up till 4am can lead to severe stomach cramping and internal bleeding and many days of lost productivity.