These robot legs are made for walkin’ me to the shops

17.08, Friday 4 Nov 2022

Exoskeletons quietly got good while I wasn’t looking?


Hangzhou RoboCT Technology Development Co. raised series A funding earlier this year: RoboCT’s UGO exoskeleton robot is a rehabilitation robot that helps patients who experience motor dysfunction in the lower body learn how to walk.

100,000 UGO exoskeletons are already in market.

There are also passive exoskeletons. Ottobock has a series of unpowered exoskeletons that redistribute weight, for use in the logistics space. e.g. squatting, lifting, carrying are all easier.

Powered again: these active exoskeletons, in use by the Chinese military (2021), list similar micro-benefits:

  • It is powered by a motor, which will give a reacting force to its user every time the user gets up after bending over, so the user can get up faster with less effort
  • one person can carry ammunition boxes weighing 50 kilograms without much effort
  • It takes less than 40 seconds to put on and take off the suit.

Exoskeletons don’t address use cases but instead augment, and I mean this in the Engelbart/Licklider sense.

To unpack that:

From Douglas Engelbart’s Augmenting Human Intellect (1962) which is the approach that led his team to invent the personal computer: Every process of thought or action is made up of sub-processes. – for example: finding, copying, re-arranging, and filing text.

It’s a solid approach! Identify and speed up the sub-processes, then the tasks look after themselves. (Very different from today’s world of end-to-end task-focused service design, say.)

Engelbart was following J. C. R. Licklider who made the original conceptual breakthrough after introspecting on his own work. In his paper Man-Computer Symbiosis (1960):

In the spring and summer of 1957, therefore, I tried to keep track of what one moderately technical person actually did during the hours he regarded as devoted to work. …

About 85 per cent of my “thinking” time was spent getting into a position to think, to make a decision, to learn something I needed to know. Much more time went into finding or obtaining information than into digesting it. Hours went into the plotting of graphs, and other hours into instructing an assistant how to plot. When the graphs were finished, the relations were obvious at once, but the plotting had to be done in order to make them so. …

Throughout the period I examined, in short, my “thinking” time was devoted mainly to activities that were essentially clerical or mechanical: searching, calculating, plotting, transforming, determining the logical or dynamic consequences of a set of assumptions or hypotheses, preparing the way for a decision or an insight.

The bottleneck to progress is not smart people, it is what is easy: my choices of what to attempt and what not to attempt were determined to an embarrassingly great extent by considerations of clerical feasibility, not intellectual capability.

This is a stunning result!

If you augment the sub-processes, not only are tasks achieved more efficiently, but you increase the surface area of the adjacent possible!

And it’s the conceptual rhyming that underpins my interest in exoskeletons: what is opened up by augmenting sub-processes of the physical self?

(To round out the story above: Licklider inspired Engelbart; Licklider funded Engelbart based on that paper in his capacity as director at ARPA; Engelbart’s team invented the PC. I wrote a potted history last year.)

What are the civilian applications?

The last time I was on about cyborg prosthetics (2020) I said I wanted a chairless chair but for gardening.

I’m still waiting! If you can get an active exoskeleton for squatting with a drill on the assembly line, then give me my powerloader to empty the dishwasher dammit.

Like: eyeglasses were lame essentials and then they became fashion. I’m sure that exoskeleton knees to redistribute weight so I can more easily lift the sofa while hoovering would end up being cool. Somehow.

Let’s not overlook AI. There’s the possibility of do-what-I-mean interaction that should let exoskeletons and other prosthesis fit right into everyday life.

FOR EXAMPLE: why not an extra arm that I strap round my chest, and I can use the extra hand to just… hold stuff.

Let’s say my 3rd hand can hold a mug of tea without spilling it as I go up and down the stairs, arms full with other stuff, and hand it back gracefully when I go to take it. Why wouldn’t I have that on me the whole time?

Anyway I prefer somaforming to cyborgs nowadays.

Clynes and Kline’s “cyborg” concept from 1960 was derived from transforming humans into half-human, half-machine hybrids to survive the hostile environment of space (here’s the history).

But sci-fi author Becky Chambers, in her 2019 novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate proposes something else: Somaforming is an elegant solution, but not an immediate process. – somewhat akin to a patch that produces insulin.

We don’t change much – nothing that would make us unrecognisable, nothing that would push us beyond the realm of our humanity, nothing that changes how I think or act or perceive.

It’s a take on cyborging which emphasises the contingent, the temporary and partial, the human and the body; the process, the versatility…

Somaforming for space? How about somaforming for everyday life.

It’s a framing that unlocks the imagination for me in a way that thinking about cyborg prostheses doesn’t so much.

Look: the exoskeleton challenge is no longer technology. It’s what we do and how.

And if we’re looking into the adjacent possible, then perhaps it’s more plausible from a consumer product R&D perspective to chase down robot trousers than robot cars. Why not, why not?

Don’t give me autonomous vehicle cocoons to get me far away –

– give me augmented legs to make it easier to hang out in my neighbourhood; to carry the shopping and spend more time in the fresh air and greeting people I pass; to cover ground with ease, to pay attention near traffic for me, to let me reply to an email or two on the hoof if I need to…

To somaform me for the walkable city.

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