I, Robot 

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

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The magic word you hear around the BLEEX lab these days is "transparent." This is code for "so lightweight and quick that the user can't feel the machine." Ideally, the exoskeleton's machinery would be cool enough that it will avoid infrared detection, quiet enough that its user can't hear it, and small enough that it could fit beneath the wearer's pants and go unnoticed by observers.

After all, the exoskeleton's defining design feature already is what it doesn't have: no keyboard, no joystick. Its user simply walks, and the machine walks along with him, providing the motorized muscle to carry the payload in the backpack. As Heinlein had envisaged, there are no "driving" skills to learn and nothing to encumber the hands; the user is free to turn his critical thinking skills to whatever task is at hand. The machine does the gruntwork; the human does the thinking. As Kazerooni puts it, "This is the very first machine that integrates human intellect with the strength of a robot."

But at least for now, the exoskeleton itself is hard to miss. Kazerooni takes an appraising look at one of the prototypes. One leg of the exoskeleton has been encased in transparent plastic to allow viewers to peek at the elegant metal skeletal structure underneath; the other side has a plastic sheathing in Army green. Kazerooni studies its thigh and shakes his head impatiently. With the plastic outer layer attached, the exoskeleton protrudes about six inches from each of the wearer's legs. "To me, that is huge," he says. "This is way too much. I want to make the thing about this size," he adds, making a chopping gesture that would reduce the thigh by half. Will he be happy if he can get it down to three inches? Or perhaps two? "You know what the specs are?" he asks with a grin. "As small as you can get it."

Kazerooni's students are of the right age group to have grown up with plenty of pop-culture images of robots. "I think all of us were robot freaks," says Chu. "I personally loved Legos, Voltron, Transformers, Robotech. I however am a cynic by nature, so I was the kind of kid who eventually got fed up with the sci-fi and toys since they seemed to disobey the laws of physics and had mechanisms that I just didn't believe could actually work. I guess that's why I went into engineering."

There are now thirteen students and four staff members working on the BLEEX project, all aiming for the less-is-more aesthetic. "Transparency is kind of like the holy grail in this thing," Chu says. "Ideally, once you strap this thing onto the human and power it up, the human doesn't feel it's there. They'll move however they normally move and the robot just follows them."

"Like a shadow," nods Ryan Steger, a fellow grad student with several years on the project.

It's a novel approach to constructing an exoskeleton. Traditional robotics -- not to mention the robots often portrayed in movies, comics, cartoons, and video games -- have given us images of robowarriors all but completely encased in machinery, moving in distinctly unhuman ways. BLEEX has sought to upend all that, in part because people feel creepy and claustrophobic if they're made to haul too much machinery. There are only a few places on the body where people can comfortably bear weight for long periods of time without chafing or bruising, so BLEEX is designed to connect to the person at only three points. There are brackets underneath a pair of modified boots where the machine attaches rigidly to the feet, the backpack hangs off the shoulders and straps across the chest, and fabric straps attach slightly beneath the knees. "Even that is questionable," Kazerooni says, pointing at the knee straps. "Some people will take it off."

Part of the Berkeley team's unique approach to building the exoskeleton is that instead of being driven by the user, the machine mimics the user's movements. Picture a dad with a young child standing on his feet: The dad stands behind the child, but the two walk together, the dad carefully adapting his pace to the movements of the child. That's how BLEEX works, using an array of networked sensors located at strategic points in the machine's "bone" structure and in the soles of the boots to anticipate how the person wants to move, and forwarding information to a central computer. "It's the same way you have a local area network in your office so all the computers get connected and can pass information," Kazerooni says. And because the sensors are built into the leg structure, there are no buttons to push, no steering wheel to turn. "You simply walk," he adds.


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