I, Robot 

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

Page 6 of 9

He was drawn to the logic and precision of machines. "I feel comfortable with machines, and if you want to ask me why, it's that when machines don't work, don't perform well, there is a good reason for it," he says. Kazerooni also paints and sculpts, a process he says is not inherently different from building something mechanical. "There is a beauty in machines," he says. "I actually look at machines as sculptures, as a piece of art. I think a lot of us do that but we don't confess." He points out that many people will admire the design of a car on the street, or even the intricacies of the machinery underneath the hood.

Kazerooni says his interest in exoskeletons was sparked by his disappointment with the limitations of autonomous robots, which are simply programmed to perform repetitive tasks in structured environments -- a robot spot-welding in an auto plant, for example. But in a chaotic situation, where he pictured an exoskeleton being the most useful, Kazerooni doubted the abilities of an autonomous machine. A successful rescue worker must be able to make split-second choices, to prioritize decisions, and to rely on sensory input that most robots don't have. "Even with the state of technology in artificial intelligence, it's just not going to make the robot as good as a person," he says. Humans, on the other hand, are comparatively wimpy, but are good at dealing with free-form situations. "They have experience, they have memories of what they have done in the past, they have the ability to think very quickly," Kazerooni says. "Therefore, I might as well augment a person."

Kazerooni had a second reason to want to improve human abilities, rather than replace them. Some of his early research had put him into close contact with the manufacturing world, such as the assembly lines at General Motors. Although he could see the need for autonomous robots in hazardous work environments such as nuclear plants, he says he could not condone the replacement of human workers by robots simply because they're a cheaper labor source. "I could not accept this culturally," he says. "I could not see how a beautiful person with a beautiful way of thinking about problems could be replaced by a strong but dumb robot."

So while the Department of Defense may be motivated by making exoskeletons useful to soldiers and field medics, Kazerooni prefers to talk about his invention helping FedEx workers load trucks or rescue workers carry the wounded from earthquake sites. The hallmark of good robotic design, he says, is to make the machine's production so efficient that everybody who needs it can afford to use it. "It's always easy to build a very safe car with a price of $60,000," he says. "That to me is not a challenge. But can you provide the same level of safety for less than $20,000 so everybody can use it? That is beautiful engineering."

Some might question why a project headed by a professor so interested in its potential civilian and humanitarian applications is being funded by the Department of Defense. Kazerooni points out that DARPA is unique in the tech world for its willingness to pay for long-term research projects that may never lead to a profitable product. "Most institutions fund projects where there is for sure a return there," he says. "I always like to do these risky projects. DARPA traditionally has been funding projects that are high-return/high-risk things, and I love to do that, so it was a great match." Kazerooni says he is also interested in collaborating with other groups, including local fire departments and advocates for the disabled or others who have a possible use in sight for exoskeleton technology, as well as manufacturers developing materials that might make the exoskeleton more lightweight.

Likewise, Chu says he isn't losing any sleep over the exo's funding source. "The exoskeleton is being funded by DARPA as new technology with potential military applications, not specifically as a weapon of war," he says, adding that his team has never been asked to design anything vaguely weapon-related. He points out that venture capitalists are unlikely to fund such a new technology, much less the educations of a dozen mechanical engineering grad students. "Without military funding, most of our lab would be more worried about getting enough money to eke out a degree than pushing the edge of technology," he says.

A box-loading device may not be as sexy as a fighting machine, nor the premise of preventing back injuries quite as exciting as creating übertroops. But Kazerooni is cautious about overhyping his own design, or spinning elaborate theories about how it might be used in the future. All he'll say is that it's useful for carrying heavy loads and making them feel light. "I'm pragmatic," he says. "Everybody around the department tells me that I'm just quite practical about my work, and sometimes being in Berkeley it may not be such a good idea. But practical things are important these days, considering the limited resources we are going to have in the future. Making things practical under the cold light of reality is hard."


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