All Things Digital

Monday 12, December 2016


Ever felt like there weren’t enough hours in the day? Or that by creating a few duplications of yourself life could move at a smoother pace? 

Telerobotics promises a future where you can accomplish far more in a day than you ever thought possible by creating potentially stronger, better-looking versions of yourself enhanced with robo-capabilities and placing them all over the world. 

Mel Slater, a computer scientist at the University of Barcelona, Spain describes his vision for the future of telerobotics, “Our long-term vision is to have docking stations all over the world. Anyone could connect to whichever robot they wanted, and more substantially, as many robots as they wanted and ‘teleport’ there instantaneously.” These second, third, fourth or fifth bodies “would translate the movements of your “real” one, relaying local sights and sensations across the distance”.  

Embody a robot

Telerobotics hardware is not currently at place where you can fully embody a robot. Most existing incarnations are better described as ‘Skype on Wheels’. However even the first tier of development has resulted in a pretty incredible array of possibilities, including: allowing Edward Snowden to roam freely in the US and enabling a disability activist to meet Barack Obama at the White House. Extensive research is now being conducted into systems that will give people more dexterous control of these other selves from afar.     


Source: Edward Snowden at a TED talk via the BeamPro. 

In a recent experiment, three paralysed volunteers in Italy controlled the movements of a robot positioned in Japan sending commands 10,000 kilometres via ECG. One the participants stated, “When the robot was stationary the feeling of embodiment was low, but the moment I gave the first command or changed direction, there was this feeling of control and increased embodiment”. 

The Body Ownership Illusion 

The most powerful tool in the process of telerobotic development is in fact the human brain. This is displayed in an enticing phenomenon called “the body ownership illusion” which refers to the illusory perception of non-bodily objects (e.g., artificial limbs) as being parts of one's own body and as being the source of the associated bodily sensations, such as touch. For example, one can get to experience a mannequin's hand as his/her own hand, and have strong physiological responses when seeing it being attacked with a knife.


Source: The Rubber Hand Illusion  

In an experiment conducted nearly two decades ago, scientists invited 10 people into their lab. Each member of the experiment sat at a small table with a screen that hid their left arm from view and in front of them sat a rubber hand. As described in The New Scientist “On one side of the screen, the scientist stroked the rubber hand with a small paintbrush; on the other, they mimicked those exact movements on the subject’s hidden left hand. The subjects suddenly felt as if they were experiencing the fake hand’s sensations, as if they could feel what the rubber hand felt. “I found myself looking at the dummy hand thinking it was actually my own,” said one”. Computer scientist Mel Slater states how the ‘Body Ownership Illusion’ and ‘Rubber Hand Illusion’ relate to virtual embodiment, “In your whole life, whenever you’ve looked down, you’ve seen your body. Whenever you’ve moved your arm, it’s your arm that moves,” says Slater. “In virtual reality or with a robot, the simplest hypothesis for the brain to adopt is, ‘OK, it’s my body.’ It doesn’t mean you believe it, but you have this strong illusion.”

Robotic Surgery 

Recent developments in telerobotics are also creating new and innovative pathways in surgical robotics. One of many new innovative, telerobotic medical devices is the da Vinci Surgical System. This device is powered by robotic technology, which allows a surgeon’s hand movements to be translated into smaller, precise movements of tiny instruments inside the patient’s body. One of these instruments is a laparoscope, a thin tube with a light and camera at the end. This connective part of the instrument sends images to a video monitor in the operating room to guide doctors during surgery, however, the surgeon is 100% in control of the da Vinci System at all times. Presently, the da Vinci System has brought minimally invasive surgery to more than 3 million patients worldwide.   


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Telerobotics promises a future where you can accomplish far more in a day than you ever thought possible by creating potentially stronger, better-looking versions of yourself enhanced with robo-capabilities and placing them all over the world.