I, Robot 

Meet BLEEX, the first functional human exoskeleton, which pairs human brains and mechanized brawn.

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BLEEX cannot leap tall buildings, or even jump at all. It does not wield mechanized pincers or flamethrowers, or as yet even arms. Its exterior cannot repel weaponry of any type, although its interior features some intensely complicated feats of engineering. Yet thanks to the vast quantities of robot-based entertainment that most of us have ingested, Kazerooni and his colleagues keep having to answer questions about whether BLEEX is a violent contraption bent on global domination. "I get a lot of 'So, you're building the next Terminator that's going to take over the world,'" says Cal graduate student Andrew Chu, who has worked on BLEEX for the last four years. "People are worried that we're working on some super-military killing machine."

After all, BLEEX is funded solely by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the offshoot of the Department of Defense that bankrolls cutting-edge military technology research. Just as sci-fi fans have long envisioned the day when smart but squishy humans could wrap themselves in the metallic embrace of a robot, so too has the Department of Defense, with its desire to make soldiers stronger and more technologically enhanced than ever. When BLEEX was formally introduced to the scientific and military world last month at a DARPA symposium in Anaheim, the Department of Defense hailed it as a boon to modern soldiers, who must carry heavy loads of rations, emergency supplies, batteries, and weapons on their backs. Conference attendees bombarded the Berkeley team with questions about how to make the machine faster, stealthier, and more powerful.

Perhaps it's unsurprising that among the first public responses to BLEEX were some qualms about the advent of mechanically amplified soldiers. When news of its invention broke on the tech Web site Slashdot.org, some writers voiced satiric if misinformed reservations about how the government might one day use the new technology. "Bush wants his soldiers to carry back the oil a barrel at a time," groused one poster. "If you protect soldiers from small arms, you only add incentive for everyone else to make larger arms," worried another. "You can see the obvious cycle." Someone else referred to the "FEAR OF GOD it would put into the soldiers when they see a 40-story-tall metal killing machine running at 100km/hr towards them." A more enthusiastic poster wrote, "I, for one, welcome our robotically enabled masters!" Someone else crowed: "Imagine a soldier that could roll over a 70-ton tank. It would be like having an army of He-men. We could rule the world."

Talk of this type easily gets under Kazerooni's skin. He is insistent that his motivation is not a military one. Where his government funders may see supersoldiers, Kazerooni says he sees firefighters, rescue crews, UPS workers, factory and warehouse employees, and other people who lift heavy burdens every day. The exoskeleton will make their work easier, prevent back injuries, and maybe even help people with degenerative muscle disorders walk again, he says. "I am committed to make machines that are useful for workers, for people who do hard physical jobs," he says. Kazerooni never tires of pointing out that the "exo" is merely a helpful machine, not something designed to blast through your doorway or kick over your car.

Like his students, the professor is a pretty tough critic of Hollywood's ideas about exoskeletons. "Some of these machines that are actually made in movies violate the very first laws of physics," he says with a laugh. To make the machines look exciting, he notes, prop designers have produced exoskeletons so enormous and top-heavy that if they were built in real life, they would tip over or be extraordinarily clumsy. They're so inefficiently designed that, in a real battle, you'd be better off if the enemy troops were wearing them, he says. And although he says it would have been technologically possible for his team to design a somewhat larger-than-life machine and still make it work, at a certain point it would have become a vehicle, rather than a wearable device, which defies the whole point of the human-augmentation project. Smaller is better, he says, even if the results are less cinematic.

And what about that rumor circulating on Slashdot that Kazerooni was consulted by the Aliens production team regarding the appearance of Ripley's power-loader exo? "I think there was a phone call," he says bashfully. When pressed, he'll admit that he also gave a bit of advice to the crew working on the Spielberg movie A.I., and recently got a phone call from Emeryville animation studio Pixar asking for more aesthetic guidance. But he stresses that he has never taken money for dispensing technical tips to moviemakers, and that his involvement was limited to phone calls and office visits -- he has never worked on-set. "My connection with the movie industry has been no more than to solve a few problems and point them towards the right solution, perhaps," he says. "On the part of writers and moviemakers, creating a machine that impresses the viewer is the goal. What is our goal? It is to bring science and engineering together to make a useful machine."

In fact, the next phase of Kazerooni's project is to make his team's creation less imposing and menacing.


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