Does This Terrifying Robot Really Have to Look Like a Mermaid?
Mermaids, and their less famous comrades the mermen, are beautiful beings that have mastered the underwater world. They also have a more sinister rep as vicious bastards that drag sailors to their watery doom. So perhaps it’s no wonder that a new mermaid-like robot from Stanford, the OceanOne—with its graceful, streamlined body but oh, also, claws and dead eyes—elicits mixed emotions. Sure, it looks like you and me, but it’s just rather more, well, electronic.
Recoil if you want. Laugh. Grab a pitchfork and vow to hunt it down. But OceanOne is in fact an emblem of a battle over the future of robotics: Humanoid bots are getting roboticists riled up, and not just because they’re creepy.
Here’s the thing about your body. It’s fantastic at a lot of things—running, climbing, manipulating objects with those handy opposable thumbs. But it’s not meant to be in the ocean, really. That’s the domain of your mammalian friends the whales and dolphins.
So of all the designs to choose from for a remotely operated underwater vehicle, you might think a humanoid would be the silliest to land on. But for OceanOne’s creator, roboticist Oussama Khatib of Stanford University, a humanoid can serve as a sort of extension of the operator. “It is an avatar of an expert,” he says. “It feels almost as if you’re there.”
Up on the surface, the operator uses intuitive controls with haptic feedback, so in a sense they can feel what the robot “feels.” Indeed, on a recent expedition, Khatib—by way of the robotic mermaid—was able to pluck a vase from a 350-year-old shipwreck.
Setting aside the ridiculous body plan of the robot for a moment, this is big. Perhaps the most pressing problem in robotics right now is manipulation. Namely, robots are awful at it. They’re consistent and they’re powerful, but they’re about as dexterous as an octogenarian on horse tranquilizers.
Think about something as simple as picking a piece of paper off a table. You have to pinch it and peel one corner up, or drag it to the edge and get a handle on it that way. That’s no easy feat for a robot.
So OceanOne managing to liberate a vase from a shipwreck is impressive, yes. But it’s unclear whether a waterproof humanoid would be useful beyond excavating human shipwrecks. “The big question to ask is: birds versus airplanes,” says roboticist Hanumant Singh of Northeastern University. “We don’t need flapping wings to fly. And so there are certain applications where it’d really make sense to go with stuff where we don’t have to anthropomorphize.”
It makes a certain amount of sense to deploy a humanoid on land, particularly in environments built for humans—think a melted-down reactor. A anthropomorphic robot might be best equipped to navigate those buildings, since the structure is packed with stairs and ladders optimized for the human form factor. (Still, many roboticists see humanoid bots as somewhat distracting from the larger issues in robotics.)
But in the ocean, perhaps a humanoid is out of place. That’s especially true because autonomous robots are growing more and more sophisticated. Without humans at the helm, your more traditionally shaped—and less terrifying—robot might be better equipped to explore deep sea floors or monitor undersea oil drilling.
Then again, birds fly by flapping and planes fly with jet engines. Maybe there’s room in the ocean for robots that go about things a bit differently like one big happy family, complete with, yes, creepy humanoid uncle.
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