A View from David Zax
Elastic Electrical Cables for Robotic Skin
The first-of-their-kind wires could take the hard edge off of robots.
A Japanese company called Asahi Kasei has developed the world’s first elastic electrical cable – and has taken the liberty of christening it “Roboden” (here’s a link, if your Japanese is good). In a somewhat unsettling comparison, TechCrunch notes that Roboden can stretch by a factor of 1.5, “like the human skin.”
The comparison (which Asahi Kasei actually makes itself) is in fact apt, since one of the main applications Asahi Kasei envisions is in humanoid robotics. Typically, for robots to be able to articulate their rigid joints, roboticists have to include extra, slack wiring to accommodate the movement. A stretchy cable is more forgiving, eliminating the need for some of that slack. Asahi Kasei is also one of the world’s major manufacturers of spandex (though under the brands ROICA and Dorlastan), so the company is very much at home in the world of the stretchy. “We thought, if we can make a cable that stretches by a factor of 1.5, it could be used for wearable electronics, or for wiring the skin of humanoid robots,” Shunji Tatsumi of Asahi Kasei Fibers told Diginfo TV, in one of the latter’s trademarked deadpan video reports.
There are other, more mundane uses as well: you can simply buy USB cables out of Roboden if you feel a great need for stretchy wires to plug into your laptop. “Of course, this will also have applications in amusement or entertainment,” added Tatsumi.
But the most intriguing frontier here is that favorite of robotic observers: the uncanny valley, that eerie in-between state in which robots are just not quite convincingly human. “For robots to be more like people, they’ll need to be soft,” Tatsumi said. Asahi Kasei is not the first to have envisioned an era of the flexible, even squishy, robot (see this recent account of a Harvard project to make a Gumby-like robot). All of which raises a question: will the steepest ascent out of the uncanny valley be in the realm of touch, not sight?