Welcome to Philly’s Robot Revolution

by longformphilly

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Sandy Hingston | Philadelphia Magazine | September 2016

“You can stop if you want to,” Katherine Kuchenbecker says, smiling a little as Graspy stretches out his metal arm to high-five me. This is problematic because I’m trying to take notes, and if I keep writing I can’t meet Graspy’s hand, or sort-of hand, which is more like a metallic claw equipped with sensor pads. I could shun him, as Kuchenbecker suggests — just let that appendage hover in mid-air as I jot down his price (about $400,000, Kuchenbecker says, “the cost of a house”) and the name of the company that made him. But Graspy is the first robot I’ve ever met, and I don’t want to hurt his feelings. Even though, of course, he doesn’t have any feelings. He’s a robot. But I’m a human being.

Graspy lives — well, exists — in the University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception) Lab, the research center where Kuchenbecker works as director of the Penn Haptics Group. He’s considered a humanoid robot, though the emphasis should be on oid. He’s big and square and doesn’t have a face, though my mind can’t help but make one out of two round holes and a wide rectangular slot where his face would be if he had one. He’s wearing a jaunty Xbox hat.

Kuchenbecker and her students have spent hundreds of hours working through complex mathematical formulas so that Graspy and I can play our little clapping game: high-five left, high-five right, high-five both hands! High-five left, high-five right, high-five both hands! I’d hate for Graspy to know it, but frankly, I’m underwhelmed. Having spent the past few weeks soaking in the dire warnings of robot alarmists like Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk (who once called the development of artificial intelligence “summoning the demon”) and the giddy prognostications of robot devotees like tech guru Ray Kurzweil (“the biotechnology and nanotechnology revolutions will enable us to eliminate virtually all medical causes of death”), I was expecting … more. More natural movement, for one thing. More, I don’t know — speed? Range? Human-ity?

Writer bio: Sandy Hingston is a senior editor at Philadelphia Magazine. Hingston, a Bucks County native, joined the magazine in 1990. While she graduated from Duke University, her parents met at Temple.

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