May 14, 2015 / 3:30 PM / 4 years ago

The future of cuddly robots

Disney’s Big Hero 6 star Baymax has captured the hearts of millions around the world. But while the health monitoring balloon-like machine is a work of science fiction, researchers are working towards making soft, human-friendly robots a reality. 

Chris Atkeson’s work in the field of soft robotics inspired the creation of Baymax. He, along with researcher Yong-Lea Park, both computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University, say the public’s perception is changing with the realization that robots don’t necessarily want to take over the world.  

“I don’t think you are ever going to stop Hollywood from making killer robot movies but I think people want technology to help them,” Atkeson said. 

As of May 2015, Big Hero 6 has earned Disney upwards of $220 million USD at the box office and from DVD sales in the United States alone. 

“Ten years ago people were building robots, but people were more interested in building robots from rigid materials and strong materials and powerful machines,” said Park who added that until recently the majority of research and development spending in the robotic space was centered in the manufacturing and military sectors.   

Instead of drones and automated factory workers made of metal, the machines that Atkeson and Park build are made of rubber and plastic, making them safer for humans to interact with. The researchers are also working on giving their soft robots a sense of touch, an ability now possible thanks to developments in the field of material science.  

According to Carmel Majidi, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, the next step towards designing a safe and friendly robots is developing technologies that will bridge the gap between soft materials and computer hardware.   

“There are going to be certain rigid components in these electronics and machines. And so a big goal for us is to develop materials simultaneously compatible with that kind of more mature established microelectronic hardware,” he said.  

Major advances in machine learning are needed to make robots like Baymax a reality. But other technologies utilizing soft robotics are much closer to market, especially in the field of wearable computing where smart clothing laced with flexible circuitry and electronic devices that adhere to skin are on the road to commercialization.   

In the movie, Baymax has the ability to interact with humans and monitor their health. That technology is also taking shape, according to Atkeson, who points to technologies like iPhone’s Siri and wearable devices like Fitbit as examples of that. 

“I have heard from many, many people talk about the positive impact that the movie Big Hero 6 has had on kids, and it has it in two ways. One, it makes them like robots, and two, it makes them want to be scientists and engineers.” 

According to Atkeson, that is the most important element of making a real Baymax, - inspiring the next generation to build him.  

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