used in the International Space Station, and, in one demonstration with implications for antiterrorism operations, opening a backpack, sorting through its contents, and choosing and removing a particular item—demonstrating how Robonaut might be used to search for a weapon or explosives while its operator remains at a safe distance.
With its human-appearing outline but different joint construc- tion and texture, Robonaut’s hand combines organic and machine looks, and there is a cyborglike aspect to the entire robot.The opera- tor, although in no way neurally plugged into the robot, functions as the partly merged cognitive center of a piece of machinery, like a brain transplanted into a mechanical body. Robonaut is not the only remotely operated robot.The Utah-based Sarcos Corporation, for in- stance, has demonstrated a humanoid, human-size unit whose arms and legs follow the actions of a human operator (plugged into what amounts to a full-body data glove) well enough to dance, although not very gracefully.
Robonaut and the Sarcos robot represent halting first steps to- ward beings as capable as the fictional RoboCop and Deirdre. But researchers are getting closer to those sophisticated imaginary cy- borgs, driven primarily by the desire to make better prosthetic de- vices, with new tools to accomplish that. Gerald Loeb and Frances Richmond, of the University of Southern California, note that al- though two centuries have elapsed since Galvani observed that elec- tricity makes muscles twitch, only in the last three decades have roboticists and neurophysiologists begun seriously addressing the problem of how to make an artificial limb move under neural control. Now, they say, we have reached the point where it “appears feasible to graft robotic and electrophysiological instrumentation onto a biologi- cal system to repair it,” but also note that this requires
many channels of data transmission in each direction.These channels must be installed and function safely and reliably in one of the most challenging environments conceivable—the human body.
The possibilities, and the problems, for direct neural control of limbs are illustrated by a unit proposed by Paolo Dario and his col- leagues. This effort aims at a prosthetic or “biomechatronic” hand