Last month, I tried to make the case that we already have all the bits and pieces of technology needed to build an artificial person. That leads immediately to the question: "Is anyone actually close to doing it?"
The answer is: "Yes."
I don't claim an exhaustive knowledge of what everyone in the Universe - or even on this particular big, round rock - is up to, but I do know a few things. Specifically, it recently came to my attention that the folks at Engineered Arts are collaborating with the folks at computer-modelling-software developer Maplesoft to take the next step toward an artificial person.
Engineered Arts is irresponsible for the RoboThespian line of robot lecturers gracing science centers in some fourteen countries. This author got to watch one at the NASA Kennedy Space Center do its stuff late last year. The thing did a credible job of presenting information about NASA's space-exploration efforts, including answering questions from the audience.
Max Q, as the robot's named, exhibited a range of lifelike head and hand movements, but looked like somebody'd nailed its feet to the floor. As a veteran lecturer, myself, I know that the best way to keep your audience engaged is to move around. You want to see a master at work? Go look up a video clip of Richard Feinman lecturing on quantum physics. The man never stopped! Back and forth across the stage, waving his arms like an Italian politician, he made metastable states of pi mesons seem exciting.
Max Q didn't do that. He stood rooted to the spot like a scared second grader reciting a poem.
"Our Flag, by Elanor Hatch ... ."
Bipedal locomotion is a seriously difficult trick to accomplish. Just ask the nearest trained dog. An upright human is, mechanically, an inverse pendulum with the added complication of two movable supports capable of stepping around in three dimensions. Engineered Arts is busy using Maplesoft's mathematical-modeling software to solve the simultaneous coupled differential equations of motion needed to keep the robot upright and moving smoothly across the stage.
The developers are currently working on a biomimetic leg using pneumatic actuators to provide motion similar to that of a human leg in non-linearity and compliance. They hope to have a computer model of the full human body in early 2013, and a working prototype later in the year.
One small step for man. A giant leap for robotkind.
C.G. Masi has been blogging about technology and society since 2006. In a career spanning more than a quarter century, he has written more than 400 articles for scholarly and technical journals, and six novels dealing with automation's place in technically advanced society. For more information, visit www.cgmasi.com.