I, Robot 

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

Page 9 of 9

In the meantime, they expect that other research teams will soon be turning out rival designs. For example, according to DARPA, the Sarcos team also expects to complete an upper- and lower-body prototype by 2005. "There are going to be a lot of exoskeletons pretty soon, like in a year or two, coming up from bright places: universities, institutions, and laboratories," Kazerooni says. "They will probably do what we sort of prescribed." Then he thinks about it for a moment and adds, "Hopefully, better things."

Even though the exoskeleton has long captivated the imaginations of sci-fi fans, it's an idea that may become more palatable to the general public as people become accustomed to wearing more and more technology on their bodies. "Progress towards that era is unavoidable," Kazerooni says. "We're on that path already. We have GPS with us, we have helmet-mounted displays with us." And for those who think that being draped in machinery and communications gear is only for soldiers, he points out that ordinary people have turned themselves into mini-cyborgs thanks to the portable technology they carry with them every day. Take the cell phone; it's small, noninvasive, and it gives people a power once unimaginable -- the ability to instantaneously talk from anywhere to someone on the other side of the world. Or how about the technologies many of us wear every day without even noticing: watches, contact lenses, pacemakers, hearing aids. Could there be a day when people strap on exoskeletons as blithely as we put on our glasses?

For now, the Cal team's foremost accomplishment is to have produced the first working exoskeleton prototype, proving that they are a viable field for future research. Someday soon, exoskeletons will work better. They'll be smaller. They'll be able to go further on less fuel. Who knows? Maybe we'll end up using them to throw alien queens out of the airlock. Or maybe they'll just make a bunch of postal workers very, very happy. Right now, the far side is the limit. "This is an infant project," Kazerooni says. "It's a beginning. In fact, we never really finished the problem. We simply introduced the problem to the community, the problem of the exoskeleton. It has a long way to go."


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