I attended a presentation on advanced robotics. Now, if you think I looked at space robots or micro-robots that can perform autonomous surgery inside a human body you are mistaken. What I saw where robots able to carry out very simple things, like combing hair!
Before you dismiss this as rubbish and move on to something more interesting let met tell you that combing hairs, something we do every morning as we think at what the day will bring (that is not paying any attention at what we are doing…), is way more complicated than it might seem at first glance.
Think about it. To comb your hair you need to know where your hair is, where the hand holding the comb is and what you want your hair to look like after combing. Yes, you never have to think about any of this, yet try to imagine having to guide a friend of yours to do the combing on your hair while being blindfolded. Tricky, wouldn’t it be? Now think about having a robots that can potentially crush a statue made of marble getting close to your head to comb your hair. How would you feel? Uneasy might be an understatement!
Developing robots to perform everyday tasks that look so easy to the point of not needing a second thought is actually quite challenging and results is significant learning that can be applied to several other tasks.
The MIT CSAIL is engaged in developing this type of robots and I saw a demonstration of one of their robot that can play the role of assistant hairdresser. The presenter said that sometimes an hairdresser need a third hand and she has to call for help. With this robot she can be assisted and the robot could even step in to do some combing on its own with no external supervision.
Now, such a robot would cost quite a bit, might scare the customer and in the end prove a waste of money. As a matter of fact in the list of jobs that may be likely to be replaced by robots, the hairdresser profession is considered to have zero chance of automation.
What makes this research, and its result, interesting is that it shows how much technology has evolved in terms of image recognition, robot intelligence and safety. Robots used to be confined in controlled environment with physical barriers to ensure that nobody could get within the robot action space. Now a robot can interact with a person, touching and collaborating with the person.