Augmenting Robots - Robotics for Human Augmentation



The evolutionary tree of humans has always had a steep upward trajectory. From Homo habilis to the Neandertals, we have seen each species get smarter and more advanced with every turn of the generation. Now, it is time for the next generation to climb a ladder in the human evolutionary tree.


What is Human Augmentation?


Human Augmentation is a field of science dedicated to increasing human capabilities, physical and mental, through the use of medicine and technology. It is biology and technology coming together to make the lives of humans better and enhanced.


The idea of Human Augmentation stems from the early efforts of helping disabled people live a normal life. Advancements in these robotic designs currently have the potential to render the wearer almost completely unhindered by their disability. These advancements have also lead researchers to believe that this technology could just as well be used to enhance the human experience.


Human Augmentation has many main ways in which it can help take humans to the next level. These include prosthetics, sensory control, and even sensory programming.


Prosthetics


There is a large amount of research going on in multiple high-level universities aiming to create motorised prosthetic devices for the disabled. Prosthetics refers to artificial body parts which are generally used to replace the corresponding missing parts for a disabled person.


In the research field, the Amber Lab at Caltech University is working on creating bipedal prosthetics which can replace the whole leg from the knee down. The technology uses the latest feedback control theories in order to make the prosthetic fit just like a real leg. They have designed a custom mechanical prosthetic, called AMPRO, which has the potential to get feedback from the leg itself (at the point where it is attached), through pressure, force, and other sensors. This feedback control system with the mechanical leg is a large step forward for Human Augmentation. Along with the AMPRO, Amber Lab is also working on creating a full human exoskeleton that can be worn as a shield and essentially acts as an external body.


Just as AMPRO is for legs, Naked Prosthetics is a start-up company making mechanical finger prosthetics. These prosthetics are custom-fitted by the need of the customer. They have three main types of drivers: the PIP driver, the MCP driver, and the Thumb driver. Each one of these drivers is designed specifically with the amputation in mind. With technology like this, we can have the power to replace almost any body part with the right type of mechanical prosthetic.


Sensory Control


Disabilities are not just limited to limbs. In fact, the deadliest disabilities are sensory disabilities such as blindness and deafness. There have been many recent inventions that can enable those with sensory impairments to virtually gain their senses again through the use of robotic technology.


The latest invention in the realms of curing legal blindness is the eSight glasses. The start-up company, eSight, has created glasses that have a camera that can essentially “see” on behalf of the wearer. The camera’s recording is then played on a screen right in from of the wearer’s eyes, causing the image to burn on the retinas, thus allowing the wearer to see their surroundings.


In a similar fashion, there has been some breakthrough for those who cannot hear. The San Francisco start-up called MotionSavvy has created a technology that can translate hand gestures from sign language to words and back again. This is, of course, is a novel use of machine learning and the Open CV libraries which allow the program to see and interpret the hand gestures.


On a similar tangent, David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Stanford University, has created a vest that allows deaf people to “hear.” The vest is equipped with a microphone that records what is being said to the person and translates the words to vibrations on the person’s back which the brain learns to interpret rather quickly. This groundbreaking technology, once matured, can be used in different areas of human’s augmentation as well.


These solutions solve a major problem for those impaired, however, they can also enhance the human experience by providing us with a much better and clearer version of the world we live in.


When it comes to human augmentation, Elon Musk’s startup company Neuralink is at the top of the game. The company aims to design a human-machine interface that can be implanted into the human brain and allow us to essentially talk to machines. The company, of course, is currently in its research phase and the final product is far from complete. However, there is already much controversy around the ethical and human implications of technology such as this.


Humans of the Future


Despite the recent spike in this technology, the methods of human augmentation are still very much within the realms of research. Much of the start-up solutions that have been implemented are surface-level fixes and don’t address the problem at the root.


The root, of course, is the damaged organ or limb. The only solution which completely uproots the problem is to be able to replace the body part with a new one, and perhaps an improved one. This is what BioPrinting aims to achieve. The study of BioPrinting is the true brainchild of modern engineering and biology. BioPrinting aims to be able to “print” human organs from stems cells collected from the patient’s bone marrow. The process employs many concepts from robotics, such as feedback control systems, mechanical assembly, and 3D Printing.


Although BioPrinting is by far the least developed form of human augmentation, it would also be the most effective if we can learn to implement it correctly. Human Augmentation is currently on the ramp, waiting to shoot up as soon as the surrounding technology matures to a certain level. Once it does, it won’t be long before we see a completely new form of human life.


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