When it comes to robot design, there are the pragmatists and the biomimetics. The pragmatists will design a robot that efficiently carries out its designated function without much worry about what the finished product looks like. As long as it can complete its repetitive task day-in and day-out, who cares about the cosmetics? An industrial robot arm that holds a welding torch, for example, isn’t much of an “arm” at all, but rather something that could easily be mistaken for a sci-fi villain.
But the biomimetics school of thought aims to duplicate a lifelike quality in its robots. Consider the Replicants of Blade Runner, robots so lifelike that they are routinely mistaken as biological humans. They are fiction, however; contemporary robotic technology has to overcome all kinds of challenges in order to move like a human and exhibit convincing fluid motion.
But researchers at the University of Washington have developed a robotic hand so lifelike that they imagine it one day replacing human hands entirely. Forget the matter-of-fact grippers and three-finger approximations of hands commonly found on robots today; roboticists Zhe Xu and Emanuel Todorov have built a hand based on the unique biological structure and operation of the human hand itself.
The human hand has learned to move in weird, perhaps unlikely ways over the course of millennia of evolution. These scientists’ process entailed the assembly of 3D-printed components to match every bone in the hand, then wired together with the requisite motors and electronics so that it can move in the elaborate ways demonstrated in this 90-second video.
Such robotic hands are important because they’ll be able to use human objects in exactly the same way we do. A series of servos in the robot’s “wrist” pull and release on high-strength Spectra strings to move digits one at a time, all at once, or any way that a living human can move his fingers. When paired with a teleoperation system, a human operator can wear a control glove and waggle his fingers as he sees fit, only to observe the robot hand follow along with the same motions in real time. It’s spooky stuff.
Imagine getting such a hand to work on a high-resolution brain-computer interface, such that your very act of thinking is all it takes to control the hand.
Now that’s some Skywalker shit.