This is the coming world of augmented humans, where technology gifts people senses, skills, and strengths never before available.
“But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book,even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.” Daniel 12:4 (KJV)
The year is 2025. You’re sitting in a surgery watching your doctor carefully insert the tips of her fingertips into black thimble-like actuators. A screen in front of the doctor flashes with the image of a glistening tunnel of flesh and, as she huddles over the controls, you feel a stirring in your bowels.
The gelatinous mass you feel coming to life inside you found its way into your body 24 hours earlier, when you swallowed a pill that looked unremarkable, save for its bulk. That pill was actually a package of edible electronics, a miniature robot that will allow the doctor to feel inside your body without making a single incision.
The swallowable robot is only one scenario that researchers in Bristol in the west of England are working to make a reality, as part of research that seeks to use bots to enhance, rather than replace, people.
Human Augmentation: Blurring the Line Between Biology & Technology
Other projects include work to allow surgeons to operate on people located miles away with superhuman precision, and managers to split their day between offices situated on opposite sides of the world. The conversation about robots today so often revolves around fears of how they will replace us, rather than help us.
Yet as the research taking place at Bristol shows, robotics is “more about augmenting people than it is about making them obsolete,” says Professor Anthony Pipe, deputy director of Bristol Robotics Laboratory.
He sees this research as reflecting a future where robots and humans enjoy a more symbiotic relationship—where robots work alongside people, enhancing their capabilities.
“There are lots of areas where robots could help humans do things,” said Pipe. “That’s really one of the big new areas. So as opposed to replacing humans, helping humans will be a large area for growth.”
Pipe talks about “human-robot teams” working together. “We’re not saying the robot suddenly becomes a simulacrum of a human being—it’s still a robot doing the dumb things and being instructed by a human being—but it may be able to do more useful and skillful things than robots have been used to do so far.”
He is not alone in his assessment that robots will routinely collaborate with people. In the US, professor Manuela Veloso of Carneige Mellon University has built CoBots, wheeled bots that automatically escort people through the university building but ask people for help when needed—or instance, to call the elevator for them.
Just as bots can help people, so they will likely always need humans, Veloso said—whether it’s an automated car that needs a person to take the wheel during snowy weather or a robotic warehouse picker that can’t get a grip on a slippery object.
“Just as humans like you and I are not able to do everything and don’t know about everything, robots will always have limitations,” said Veloso. “The thing would be to continue developing algorithms in which the robots themselves are useful but capable of asking for help.”
The swallowable robot—called the MuBot—has been the focus of researcher Ben Winstone’s work at Bristol Robotics Lab in the west of England.
In effect, the device would transplant the tips of the doctor’s fingers onto its exterior, so when the robot pushed against the inside of the intestinal tract, the doctor would feel the sensation as if his or her own fingers were pressing the flesh. Using this device, doctors of the future could feel for the telltale outline of tumors and other cancerous growths in patients.
“Medical practitioners have spent years developing a highly enhanced sense of touch to allow them to carefully palpate tissue and recognise suspect lumps and bumps,” said Winstone.
“If you could take their hands and put it inside the body without opening the body up, then they can start to feel around and have an idea what’s going on,” he said.
Allowing clinicians to feel at a distance required Winstone and his collaborators to build an electromechanical fingertip on the outside of the robot. Inside the bot are an array of pins that replicate the biological features found on the internal surface of human skin. It is these pins that stimulate the receptors responsible for letting our fingertips feel. When we detect the shapes of objects, we use the Meissner’s Corpuscle, a mechanoreceptor that sits close to the surface of the skin and measures how it deforms when pressed. Similarly, when we detect how rough a surface is we rely on the Pacinian corpuscle, which acts a bit like a microphone in sensing the vibrations upon touch.
Professor Erik Brynjolfsson, the MIT economist warning societies to prepare for the upheavals automation will trigger in the job market, calls this symbiotic relationship between humans and computers “Racing with machines.”
A powerful demonstration of the concept could soon be realised by the robotic exoskeletons being made by the likes of Ekso Bionics and ReWalk. While two-legged robots currently struggle to stay upright by themselves, a human in a robotic exoskeleton promises to combine the strength of a machine with the balance of a person and may one day allow the injured and infirm to walk with ease and help construction workers and soldiers carry back-breaking loads. source