Rich Walker talks about building the Bionic Man, which is made up entirely of prostheses, and about progress to date in industrial robotics.
Interview with Rich Walker, CEO of Shadow Robot, a UK company specialising in robotic technology, on the sidelines of his presentation to the Hello Tomorrow Challenge conference held in Paris on 18-19 April, where L’Atelier is a partner, about the Bionic Man project.
L’Atelier: Can you tell us a bit more about the Bionic Man?
Rich Walker: To give you some background on the project, several years ago a television channel which specialises in documentaries approached us. They wanted an overview of what was happening in the medical field, specifically in prosthesis technology. The TV people asked us: “If we gave you a pile of prostheses, would you be able to create an entire human being?” We thought this was a very interesting idea, so we spent a year on it. We obtained financing from US and UK TV channels, plus medical funding (Editor’s note: the project cost $1 million). So we had this crazy idea of creating, with the support of medical experts, a human body consisting entirely of prostheses. We scoured the world to find all the prostheses in existence and then we had to look into how we could assemble them. We borrowed all the different prostheses we needed and in a very short period – just five to six weeks – we put them together and built the Bionic Man. In the end we were quite surprised ourselves to see the number of prostheses in existence today. In addition to assembling them, we also created technology systems to make the heart beat and get the make-believe blood to circulate, make the robot’s hand move, and get him to speak. Basically, creating the Bionic Man was a way for us to communicate on the science. You have to see this project as a snapshot of today’s scientific research at a given moment in time. We British have stolen the word ‘bricolage’ (do-it-yourself) from the French and that’s exactly what the Bionic Man is – an assembly of various bits and pieces.
Over the last thirty years, what major changes in the robotics industry have you observed?
Firstly I would say that the mobile phone has had a real impact. Consumer electronics now uses high-level technology and this has had an impact on costs. The robots that we built twenty years ago were made of very expensive state-of-the-art technology, but these days the cheapest smartphones on the market use the same technology as our robots did back then. So the price of this technology has gradually come down. Another key change is a more recent one. It has come about in the last five years. The robotics and scientific community has adopted a Robot Operating System. Basically this is an open source platform from which anyone can download software to build robots and can modify and improve the software. This has therefore had an impact on the time it takes to build robot software, as you can now avoid spending years developing software to enable a robot to perform a basic movement. Another major change I have observed is the self-driving car. Even a few years ago this was still thought to be the stuff of fiction, but it has now become something quite ordinary and is no longer confined to the field of robotics. It’s interesting to observe this kind of technological transition.
Where do you think the robotics industry is heading next?
The major frontier which we robotics specialists have yet to cross is to create robots which can help people in their everyday lives. A new generation of industrial robots which carry out support tasks for human workmates is on the way, but their functionality is still limited. We will however see robots appearing that are useful in a number of areas of daily life and we’ll get used to having them there with us.
What’s your view on the robotics market in Europe?
Every year we carry out a survey on the robotics industry: what are the predictions for other markets, future trends, sales, etc. One major trend that we can observe in the market is people overcoming their ethical reservations about robotics. Take for example automated milking of cows. This is one of the great success stories of robotics in Europe. Many farmers today want to install this technology, mainly because it means they don’t have to get up at dawn. Some years ago, nobody would have bet on seeing robots on farms. So I think robotic equipment has a bright future on the European continent.