Robots being part of our daily lives seems less of a question of "if" than "when." Yet there’s no consensus on how they’ll look or work. Will they be Asimovian metal bipeds or something we haven’t even imagined?
Researcher Owen Holland from the University of Sussex has a vision of the robot future that’s equal parts grotesque and convincing. His vision (built by Rob Knight’s The Robot Studio), ECCERobot, is a robot built with the body of a human. It has most of our same bones (though fashioned from plastic rather than calcium), and its muscles work much like ours (though they’re driven by kitestring). ECCERobot looks like a human with much of the skin and connective tissue removed, and that’s entirely the point.
"We didn’t want to build a robot that worked perfectly—we wanted a robot that worked exactly like a human being, so it’s more complicated than other robots, and the large number of joints and the elasticity of the muscles and tendons make it much more difficult to control," Holland tells Co.Design. "We wanted ECCERobot to move exactly like a human being, so that its interactions with the world would be human-like, and so its cognitive abilities would be shaped by the same factors as human cognitive abilities. We also wanted to find out how to control a human-like body—this information would help us to understand how the brain controls our bodies."
Now ECCERobot isn’t quite a 1:1 humanoid robot. It’s clearly missing articulating legs. And some components were simplified by engineering necessity—we can’t precisely duplicate human wrists and thumbs because no engineer can manufacture their small, strong muscles and tendons yet. All the same, the robot’s body functions a lot like a human, to the point that the discs between segments in its spine gradually compress during the day (just as they do in our own bodies). "We have to lie it down every night to allow the discs to recover their shape, and so the spine goes back to normal," Holland says.
As silly as a robot that "sleeps" may sound, it’s these very human limitations that make ECCERobot so promising as an android companion.
"This way of building robots doesn’t just produce a robot that moves like a human, but it also produces a robot that is safe for humans to interact with, because the elasticity of the 'muscles’ and 'tendons’ makes it compliant and soft, unlike conventionally engineered robots," Holland explains. "We believe that this factor alone means that future robots will be more like ECCERobot than the current generation of hard, stiff metallic robots."
This human "softness" counterintuitively creates a more durable robot, as its body can absorb impacts better than a rigid structure. Iron Man may stop a bullet, but our organic jelly bodies are inherent experts at taking a fall or a punch.
Yet the most interesting aspect of ECCERobot’s design might be the most unanticipated one. This robot was, from the start of the project, built for scientific observation, and its post-autopsical body would seem anything but approachable. But it is. "Lots of people are attracted by the robot, and naturally want to interact with it, even though we have made no attempt to make it cute or cuddly," says Holland. "We think that people unconsciously recognize that it is somehow very similar to them, and so they feel comfortable with it."
Personally, I want to get the poor robot a shot of morphine and a decent coat of skin. Then, and only then, will I give it one of my world-renowned hugs (because the poor guy sure looks like it needs one).