Roland Piquepaille's Technology Trends
How new technologies are modifying our way of life

dimanche 22 août 2004

The robotics actuality is pretty rich these days. Besides the fighting robots of Robo-One and the flying microrobots from Epson (the best picture is at Ananova), here are some the latest intriguing news in robotics. In Japan, Yoshiyuki Sankai has built a robot suit, called Hybrid Assistive Limb-3 (or HAL-3), designed to help disabled or elderly people. In the U.S., Ohio State University is developing a robotic tomato harvester for the J.F. Kennedy Space Center while Northrop Grumman received $1 billion from the Pentagon to build a new robotic fighter. I kept the best for the end. A Californian counselor has just patented the ten ethical laws of robotics. A good read for a Sunday, if you can understand what he means.

Here, I'll only focus on HAL-3 and one of the most incredible patents I've ever seen, so please read the above articles for more information about the other subjects. Let's start with HAL-3 and its concept.

The lower-body suit, called Hybrid Assistive Limb-3, is designed to help disabled or elderly people smoothly perform everyday activities such as walking and climbing up and down stairs. It will go on sale later this year as the world's first commercial product of its kind.
The powered suit consists of frames to support the user's legs and has motors installed at knees and hip joints, sensors to detect changes on skin surfaces, a battery and a computer to control the system.
When a user tries to move a leg, the sensors detects through the user's skin faint electrical signals transmitted from the brain to muscles. The computer analyzes what the user is going to do, and almost simultaneously the motors start moving to support the user's motion.
HAL-3 components Here is a diagram showing the different components of HAL-3 (Credit: Cyberdyne on this page)
HAL-3 in action And on this photograph, you can see a HAL-3-equipped man going down stairs. (Credit: Cyberdyne, via this page at the University of Tsukuba, from which you also can see some movies)

What about physical characteristics and prices?

The prototype HAL-3 suit weighs 15 kg to 17 kg, but users would not find it heavy because the heel section absorbs the weight. The weight of the commercial version will be less than 10 kg because it will use light and thin components, Sankai said.
Sankai said he hopes to introduce HAL-3 on the market around autumn through his venture firm, Cyberdyne Inc. The firm, with 10 million yen in capital, has received more than 100 advance orders, mainly from people with disabilities, he said. Each HAL-3 unit is customized to meet users' needs and physical conditions.
HAL-3 will retail for 1 million yen to 2 million yen each for individual customers and between 10 million yen and 20 million yen for corporate customers, including hospitals, because it would need to be adapted to meet the needs of a wider range of people.

Now, let's turn to this puzzling patent about ten ethical laws of robotics and to the ComputerWorld Canada article for some details.

The patent, "Inductive Inference Affective Language Analyzer Simulating AI" (Number 6,587,846) introduces the concept of the Ten Ethical Laws of Robotics. According to a statement from inventor John LaMuth, the patent represents "the first AI system incorporating ethical/motivational terms, enabling a computer to reason and speak ethically, serving in roles specifying sound human judgment."
Asimovís laws state that a robot may not injure a human or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm; it must obey orders humans give it except where such orders would conflict with the first law; and it must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.
According to LaMuthís statement, Asimovís laws donít quite cut it. "This cursory system of safeguards... remains simplistic in its dictates, leaving open the specific details for implementing such a system." But the Ten Ethical Laws remedy that shortcoming, he said, because they are written as a "formal mandate," focusing on virtues to the necessary exclusion of corresponding vices.

Do you understand what this guy he's saying? I don't. So I went to his website and read his Ten Ethical Laws of Robotics. As an example, here is the number one rule.

As personal authority, I will express my individualism within the guidelines of the four basic ego states (guilt, worry, nostalgia, and desire) to the exclusion of the corresponding vices (laziness, negligence, apathy, and indifference).

The nine other rules are written in a similar vein. And I'm still puzzled. What is the purpose of such a patent? How does this guy expect to make money with this "invention"? Please send me your comments if you have any clues.

Sources: Ananova, August 18, 2004; Akemi Nakamura, The Japan Times, August 13, 2004; AgAnswers, August 17, 2004; Associated Press, August 19, 2004; ComputerWorld Canada, August 20, 2004; John LaMuth's website about his patent

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