Monday April 18, 2005

Bionic Suit

There was a post on Boing Boing last week about a robot suit called "HAL" being developed at the University of Tsukuba in Japan.  Calling the suit "a mobile suit gundam of sorts", the Boing Boing post goes on to quote this passage from an article in New Scientist:

Two control systems interact to help the wearer stand, walk and climb stairs. A "bio-cybernic" system uses bioelectric sensors attached to the skin on the legs to monitor signals transmitted from the brain to the muscles. It can do this because when someone intends to stand or walk, the nerve signal to the muscles generates a detectable electric current on the skin's surface. These currents are picked up by the sensors and sent to the computer, which translates the nerve signals into signals of its own for controlling electric motors at the hips and knees of the exoskeleton. It takes a fraction of a second for the motors to respond accordingly, and in fact they respond fractionally faster to the original signal from the brain than the wearer's muscles do...

"It's like riding on a robot, rather than wearing one," says (University of Tsukuba researcher Yoshiyuki) Sankai.

The resemblance of HAL to Gundam's mobile suits seems a little tenuous to me, but compare the description above with this passage from Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers (the book, not the [spit] movie) describing the powered armor used by his fictional Mobile Infantry:

But here is how it works, minus the diagrams.  The inside of the suit is a mass of pressure receptors, hundreds of them.  You push with the heel of your hand; the suit feels it, amplifies it, pushes with you to take the pressure off the receptors that gave the order to push....

The suit has feedback which causes it to match any motion you make, exactly—but with great force.

Controlled force...force controlled without your having to think about it.  You jump, that heavy suit jumps, but higher than you can jump in your skin...

And that is the beauty of a powered suit: you don't have to think about it.  You don't have to drive it, fly it, conn it, operate it: you just wear it and it takes orders directly from your muscles and does for you what your muscles are trying to do.  (pp. 82-83)

Score one for the Dean, I think.  That was written in 1959, and except for the details of the sensors (HAL speeds up the response time by sensing the nerve impulses directly rather than using pressure sensors), the description is right on the money.

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The creator of Gundam has admitted that he got the idea for his robots from Starship Troopers, so the connection is there either way.

Posted by: Big Ben at Apr 18, 2005 7:35:35 PM