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What's New in Robotics this Week - Sept 18

Emmet Cole
by Emmet Cole.
Posted on Sep 18, 2015 6:00 AM. 9 min read time
Call for a ban on robots designed as sex toys (BBC), Ras LABS is testing futuristic muscle material that could make robots feel more human (TechCrunch), Police militarization takes off with weaponized crowd control drones (The Conversation) and more.

Call for a ban on robots designed as sex toys (BBC)

Dr. Kathleen Richardson, a U.K.-based robot anthropologist and ethicist has launched a campaign calling for a ban on the development of sex robots.

Picture: Roxxxy

Such technology reinforces traditional stereotypes of women and the view that a relationship need be nothing more than physical, Richardson, Senior Research Fellow in the Ethics of Robotics at De Montfort University, told the BBC: 

"Sex robots seem to be a growing focus in the robotics industry and the models that they draw on - how they will look, what roles they would play - are very disturbing indeed."

"We think that the creation of such robots will contribute to detrimental relationships between men and women, adults and children, men and men and women and women."

Douglas Hines, the CEO of sex bot firm True Companion disagrees:

"The physical act of sex will only be a small part of the time you spend with a sex robot. The majority of time will be spent socialising and interacting." 

It's a fascinating topic and the BBC article offers a good overview of some of the main issues with interviews from a senior IEEE source and David Levy, the author of "Love and Sex with Robots." 

I tend to agree with Richardson's view that such products may well be detrimental to human-human relationships and harmful to those that use them. As human-robot interaction expert Kate Darling wrote in 2012:

The Kantian philosophical argument for animal rights is that our actions towards non-humans reflect our morality — if we treat animals in inhumane ways, we become inhumane persons. This logically extends to the treatment of robotic companions.

But I'm not convinced that a hasty ban on the development of sex bots is the right response. 

The ethics of this technology is likely not so black and white.

What if sex bots were used to reduce the number of humans involved in sex work? And wouldn't it be better -- or least bad -- if sexually abusive people fulfilled their fantasies on robots rather than on human beings?

What if psychologists developed some therapeutic uses for these devices?

What if sex bots were used to monitor sex offenders?

What if sex bots helped elderly people overcome the loss of a loved one?

A ban would be premature and deny society the opportunity to explore these and other questions. 

Elsewhere, Digital Trends reports that the ownership contract for the Pepper robot prohibits “acts for the purpose of sexual or indecent behavior, or for the purpose of associating with unacquainted persons of the opposite sex.” 

Ras LABS is testing futuristic muscle material that could make robots feel more human (TechCrunch

TechCrunch brought us a fascinating article about the human-muscle-like materials being developed at synthetics startup RasLabs:

Ras Labs co-founder Lenore Rasmussen accidentally stumbled upon the synthetic muscle material years ago while mixing chemicals in the lab at Virginia Tech. The experiment turned out to be with the wrong amount of ingredients, but it produced a blob of wobbly jelly that Rasmussen noticed contracted and expanded like muscles when she applied an electrical current.

These “electroactive” materials can expand, contract and conform to our limbs just like human muscles when a current moves through them – and they could be used to make robots move and feel more human to the touch.

Samples of Ras Lab's polymers were sent to the International Space Station earlier this year, to test how well they cope in the space environment. Test results are expected in 2016 and, according to TechCrunch, Rasmussen hopes that the technology will be included in NASA's 2020 Mission to Mars.

The company website claims that their synthetic muscle can “withstand extreme temperatures, 2 to 4 Kelvin, as cold as it is in outer space, to 135°C, well above the boiling point of water, and certain formulations resist radiation at levels that are lethal for humans.”

Meanwhile, back on earth, the new materials could be incorporated into prostheses, or used to generate motion without the need for gears or motors. Ras Labs looks like one to watch. 

Morphological computation: The hidden superpower of soft-bodied robots (RoboHUb)


Picture: Robohub

Excellent article about using morphological computation with soft-bodied robots. As the co-author, Helmut Hauser a lecturer in Robotics at the University of Bristol and the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, explains:

Soft robots are versatile, often much safer, more energy-efficient, robust and resilient than their more rigid counterparts. But one of the biggest challenges facing soft robotics is control – often, classical approaches don’t apply. The answer may lie in morphological computation, an idea that stems from biological systems using their bodies to control basic actions.

Morphological computation proposes that at least some aspects of control (such as walking or grasping) can be outsourced to the body as these functions are already “encoded” within it. Another way to see it is that the body can be exploited as a computational resource. This makes a task much easier, since part of the “work” will already have been done by the body, reducing the complexity of the robot’s computational problems and the corresponding control and learning tasks.

This paper from University of Zurich researchers offers a brief introduction to morphological computation for those interested in finding out more.


Police militarization takes off with weaponized crowd control drones (The Conversation


Taser-fitted drone takes down a test subject. Source: YouTube

The Conversation's Kylie Bourne with an interesting article about the legalization of weaponized drones for use by police in North Dakota. Although these drones are equipped with “less-than-lethal” weaponry –Tasers and rubber bullets, for example-- concerns are being raised about the effect on police-community relations:

This remote control is, however, also a source of great concern. While remotely controlling weaponry makes sense in war zones, it comes with risks in civilian situations as it sets police apart from the citizenry rather than as a constituent of it.

Current unmanned aircraft state law landscape (NCSL

Speaking of drones, on Monday the U.S. National Conference of State Legislatures released an overview of the current state of drone legislation and it's a very useful resource for those interested in getting a sense of the current state of play:

In 2015, 45 states have considered 161 bills related to drones. Nineteen states–Arkansas, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia–have passed 25 pieces of legislation.

All the legislation you can stand to read is linked to from the NCSL webpage. And with links to a host of other resources, from federal agencies to state legislatures (bills and reports) this webpage is definitely one to bookmark.


"Humans Will Have Cloud-Connected Hybrid Brains By 2030 Ray Kurweil says" (Learning Mind); Robot archaeologists: taking the risks out of underwater fieldwork (w/ video; euronews); Revolutionizing Prosthetics program achieves goal of restoring sensation, (DARPA Press Release) 

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Emmet Cole
Written by Emmet Cole
A freelance robotics writer since 2006, Emmet is an Economist contributor, and a regular contributor to Robotics Business Review and Robotics Trends. His writing on robots has also appeared in Wired, BBC Future, BBC Focus magazine, Space Quarterly, and numerous other outlets.
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