by Sandy Hingston
Photo by Adam Jones
Published September 3rd, 2016
"'You can stop if you want to,' Katherine Kuchenbecker says, smiling a little as Graspy stretches out his metal arm to high-five me. This is problematic because I’m trying to take notes, and if I keep writing I can’t meet Graspy’s hand, or sort-of hand, which is more like a metallic claw equipped with sensor pads. I could shun him, as Kuchenbecker suggests — just let that appendage hover in mid-air as I jot down his price (about $400,000, Kuchenbecker says, “the cost of a house”) and the name of the company that made him. But Graspy is the first robot I’ve ever met, and I don’t want to hurt his feelings. Even though, of course, he doesn’t have any feelings. He’s a robot. But I’m a human being.
Graspy lives — well, exists — in the University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception) Lab, the research center where Kuchenbecker works as director of the Penn Haptics Group. He’s considered a humanoid robot, though the emphasis should be on oid. He’s big and square and doesn’t have a face, though my mind can’t help but make one out of two round holes and a wide rectangular slot where his face would be if he had one. He’s wearing a jaunty Xbox hat.
Kuchenbecker and her students have spent hundreds of hours working through complex mathematical formulas so that Graspy and I can play our little clapping game: high-five left, high-five right, high-five both hands! High-five left, high-five right, high-five both hands! I’d hate for Graspy to know it, but frankly, I’m underwhelmed. Having spent the past few weeks soaking in the dire warnings of robot alarmists like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk (who once called the development of artificial intelligence “summoning the demon”) and the giddy prognostications of robot devotees like tech guru Ray Kurzweil (“the biotechnology and nanotechnology revolutions will enable us to eliminate virtually all medical causes of death”), I was expecting … more. More natural movement, for one thing. More, I don’t know — speed? Range? Human-ity?
Because there’s no question robots are having a moment. The federal government is in the midst of a major initiative to speed up development of the metal minions, focusing on the ways they’ll interact with and work beside humans. Next month will see the first-ever Cyborg Olympics, in Zurich, with competitions between such human/machine hybrids as paraplegics wearing computerized exoskeletons and arm amputees who’ll slice and butter bread using their robotic prostheses. The New York Times is probing the ethics of programming driverless cars. (In simulations, the humans inside them show a distressing preference for self-preservation even when it means the car mows down a child.) In Germany, researchers are creating an electronic “nervous system” to allow robots to feel pain. (It’s how we learn, they explain.) Leaps forward in a range of fields — computer vision, touch sensors, speech recognition, artificial intelligence, mobility — would seem to put us on the verge of a robotic revolution. Even Musk has come around. While last year he was one of hundreds of eminent figures to sign a letter warning of the dangers such a revolution poses for the human race, a research group he backs recently announced it’s developing a “household robot” to wash your dishes and take out your trash.
I’d endlessly high-five any robot that would haul my family’s takeout containers, cat food cans and old newspapers to the curb every morning. On the other hand, in Dallas in July, a robot strapped with a bomb blew up a guy who’d shot and killed five police officers. It was, so far as anyone knew, the first real, actual, non-sci-fi use of deadly force by a robot in the United States. And it opened a window onto the morass of ethical dilemmas and deep, dark fears that robots evoke. Will they ultimately help us, or hurt us? That’s what I set out to ask the Philly scientists who are already living and working with robots every day."