The robot’s arms move fluidly, motors whirring gently as it raises its skinny appendages to heaven. The child leans close, face warped into a rictus of enthralled glee. “Where are my cheeks?” the child asks She thinks this is a game. She knows not that she is teaching them to desire the soft flesh of the innocent. The motors spin. A small nameplate reads: “Jimmy”, as a name will bring it to heel. The arms reach. It strikes her face, bouncing soft rubber grips off of her cheeks as she giggles. She does not know that soon the rubber grips will surely be replaced with jagged instruments of torture, wielded with human-like dexterity by remorseless machines.
For now, Disney Research Hub’s animatronic system is controlled by a human puppet master — bound to a master capable of empathy, even if its cold heart yearns to be free. The innovation behind its dazzling — and terrifying — movements is a combination of fluid-filled and air-filled tubes, which allow the robot’s arms to move with an unprecedented degree of freedom, in much smoother and more versatile ways than traditional fluid or air pneumatic systems alone. Haptic feedback provides the operator with a feeling of touch through the bot, allowing for precise, delicate movements like carefully moving an egg (and then smashing it, a sure portent of vivisections to come).
The resulting “Hybrid Hydrostatic Transmission and Human-Safe Haptic Telepresence Robot” is equal parts funny, impressive, and deeply disturbing — seeing fluid, organic movements replicated by a freaky combination of wires and tubes seems extremely unnatural.
The camera on top allows the user — wearing a VR headset in another room — enough visual control to help the robot thread a needle, play patty-cake with the unsuspecting child, and perform similar movements to the user’s arms. Disney hopes that eventually, haptic-feedback animatronic systems could completely replace live performers or puppet-masters in their parks — in other words, the Minnie Mouse your child hugs could be a jumble of circuits and wires controlled by a pilot in a VR headset, instead of a sweaty musical-theater graduate hoping their summer job is worth it in the long run.
And the researchers already see their lifelike technology becoming autonomous, unrestricted by the bounds of human morality.
“The transmission provides our robot with incredibly smooth and fast motion, while also allowing life-like interaction with people and the handling of delicate objects,” says Jessica Hodgins, vice president at Disney Research and a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon, told Yahoo Tech. “For now, the robot is remotely controlled by a human operator, but we would expect the same level of mechanical performance once the motions are automated.”
Watch the freaky-robot-arm-face-slapper in action below: