Sunday, September 03, 2006

Wired News: Human Out-Muscles Robots

Wired News: Human Out-Muscles Robots

Six years ago, Jet Propulsion Laboratory researcher Yoseph Bar-Cohen challenged scientists to create an artificial arm that could beat a human in an arm-wrestling match. The catch: The arm must be made of a pliable plastic material controlled by electrical impulses. In other words, no motors allowed.

[...]

He hadn't expected anyone to take up his arm-wrestling dare for 20 years, and now one of the artificial arms managed to hold off the teenager for nearly a half-minute. "This is a major step," he said. "But it's a tough challenge."

It could mean the transformation of robots from large, clunky, motor-driven devices -- think of the robot arm that helped put together your car -- into sleek, sturdy, self-contained machines. You know, like humans.

"There could be some point where you can have a robot dog, not walking like a machine, but walking like a dog," said Bar-Cohen, a tireless advocate for the technology. "Or maybe a cheetah robot running on Mars instead of slowly rolling, climbing a mountain like we climb a mountain."

Humans and animals, after all, don't come with drive shafts and gears and wheels. Bar-Cohen and others expect that the artificial muscles will revolutionize prosthetics, allowing disabled people to more easily move their limbs.

For now, though, Ben-Cohen's dream muscles -- all made from plastics known as electroactive polymers -- are fairly primitive. The challenge is making the plastics bend and move with only a nudge from an electronic impulse, just like human muscles. Giving them the powerful strength of a live person is even harder.

Among other things, scientists have used the polymer technology to create a robotic fish and several traditional machines, but humanlike parts are still on the drawing board.

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