Those of you who are science fiction fans will recall Isaac Asimov's "three laws of robotics," which anticipated issues dealing with human/robot interaction and laid out rules that robots in his fictional universe were compelled to obey. Now European researchers are developing technology designed to enable today's real-life robots to obey the three laws:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
According to researchers at the Phriends (Physical Human-Robot Interation: DepENDability and Safety) project, today's robots can only work safely if segregated from human beings, or if they move very slowly. So the goal of the new project is to enable the creation of a new generation of robots that can interact safely and reliably with humans.
This means rather than using the traditional approach of designing robots from the ground up to perform a specific function, Phriends will design robots that are designed first to be intrinsically safe, by nature of their physical structure. Currently the project is focusing on robot arms, and is working on a prototype Variable Stiffness Actuator (VSA) - a mechatronic joint design that could enable lighter and less "hard" robot limbs.
Resolving such safety issues has potential economic pluses as well. According to Antonio Bicchi, the project's coordinator, "The economic impact of safe and dependable robots in manufacturing is huge in terms of simplifying plant layouts, increasing the productivity of workers and machines, and for overall competitiveness."
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