Are scientists a little punch drunk?

October 13, 2010 § Leave a comment

When I saw this piece on the New Scientist website I was obviously intrigued. A headline about a robot punching people? Under the guise of it being in line with Isaac Asimov‘s rules? Asimov has written huge numbers of books exploring the interaction of robots and humans, including I, Robot, but didn’t he say a robot could never hurt a human? What was going on here… I clicked on (I was, in fact, so intrigued that I was spurred into subscribing – something I’ve been meaning to do but never quite got round to. Anyway, I digress).

As I read on, I was captivated; this is a perfect science story – someone doing something that seems a bit whacky, but there’s an underlying purpose to it all. I can tell by now you’re as intrigued as me… why are some Slovenian scientists getting robots to punch their friends? The suspense is almost unbearable, I’m sure.

Well, it’s all for a good cause – they want to establish the maximum speed a robot can move at, and the right kinds of tools and appendages it can have so that it doesn’t hurt a human. So Borut Povše, of the University of Ljubljana, convinced six men to ‘take the hit’ for science; literally. And one lucky robot got a break from its day job assembling coffee making machines and the like for Japanese firm Epson to go to Slovenia and punch Povše’s volunteers, as they rated the scale of the pain they felt.

While this experiment seems a little bizarre, it has been praised at a recent meeting of other robotics experts – and he’s not the only one pushing the boundaries. Take Sami Haddadin, and his work at the aerospace centre in Germany on safe robots. This guy has been punched in the “head, chest, shoulder and abdomen” and put his arm in the ‘hands’ of a robot with a kitchen knife (according to my sources the robot stopped due to its smart sensors, and he retained his arm. Which is always good). Both researchers are adamant that studies like these need to be done to allow them to create robots that have been ‘human-proofed’.

Having said that, these two aren’t the only scientists to get a little more involved with their work than perhaps they should. The most notable example is probably the Nobel prize winning Dr Barry Marshall, who discovered that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria – by ingesting a sample himself. Along with Dr Robin Warren, who shared the 2005 prize for medicine, they made a huge impact in their field.

They found that many patients suffering ulcers had a certain kind of bug in their guts – this was Helicobacter pylori (a great looking spirally microbe… but we’re already off topic enough without me doing a Top Ten Bacteria… maybe another time). But this was 1982, and they were told nothing could survive in the severe acidic environment of the stomach and intestines. So Marshall had a good old swig of bacteria, and – lo and behold – developed an ulcer. Luckily he survived. But don’t try that one at home. Or in the lab for that matter.

So, from robots to bacteria in about 500 words. Everything in science is connected really!


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