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The Automatic Detective (2008): A robot dexterously grasps the film noir detective genre

Robots: humanoid

What it gets right about robots: the difficulties of dexterous grasping

Recommendation: Fix yourself a highball and be grateful you don’t have to try to pick up the glass with Mack Megaton’s less than dexterous hands. Listen to the audible version for the 1940’s radio serial vibe.

A thoroughly delightful film noir detective spoof - the love child of A Prairie Home Companion’s Guy Noir, Hard Luck Hank, and The Rules of Super-villainy. Mack Megaton is, well d’uh, a hulking robot originally designed to be a weapon but like Yod in He, She and It he has opted out of the military. He’s working hard to earn his full autonomy citizenship, working as a taxi driver in the steamy side of Empire City, the mutagenic capital of weird science. When his nice neighbors are nefariously kidnapped, Mack begins a reluctant transformation from a good-hearted lug into a hard-boiled detective complete with fedora, trench coat, beautiful dame on his arm, and wonderfully stereotypical movie dialog. We know how the book will end, but the humorous journey is the destination in The Automatic Detective.

Clearly the author, A. Lee Martinez wasn’t aiming for scientific authenticity on this one, but his big lunk of a protagonist did touch on an interesting topic: manipulation, more specifically dexterous grasping. Mack is stymied in daily life by his robot hands being large and not dexterous enough to tie a bow or handle delicate objects; he essentially has the fine motor control that you would expect from spray painting robot- very little. And in that way, Mack has a lot in common with real robots, because fine manipulation is very hard.

Why is fine manipulation being hard? We humans are successful because our hands have a huge number of joints (actuators and links) and our skin is highly sensitive to touch (tactile sensing) and to forces such as the weight of things (haptics). Robotics has lagged far behind in building hands, which we call end effectors (a device at the end of a limb that produces effects), because it is a complex problem. If you are trying to make an anthropomorphic end effector, you must have small actuators that can move exceeding small distances but also make large grasping motions. One approach has been to use cable or tendon drive systems which put the motors external to the hand. But in a mobile robot, versus a manufacturing robot, the motors must go somewhere so size is still a problem. Sensing is a challenge, both packing in miniature sensors (that don’t exist yet or aren’t inexpensive enough to be practical) for touch but also coordinating with camera control. Mack has anthropomorphic hands, but they are too big and without fine control.

The list of open research questions is practically infinite, which may explain why robots tend to have hands like a vice-grip jaw because there are just two surfaces to try to move and control. But the simple jaw has no real dexterity, so while it works for grasping metal door handles and IED's, it is decidedly not great for picking up eggs or surgery. If there were robots in the 1940’s, they would have had vice-grip jaws end-effectors.

It turns out that there is a third alternative to vice-grip jaws and anthropomorphic hands: soft robots. Yes, Big Hero 6 soft robots, only hand-sized. The idea is that an airbag-like inflatable surface encompasses and conforms to the door handle or object and then solidifies - thus it grasps the object. The contact provides enough fiction to allow the end-effector to pick up or turn the object - thus providing the actual manipulation. Currently this is very experimental and works only with objects that are dry and clean.

But you don’t have to understand the research challenges in robotic manipulation to enjoy The Automatic Detective. It is simply a funny spoof on the film noir and detective genres. No pre-requisites in robotics are needed-just be in a mood for some fun! You might want to listen to this one, as the narration for the audible audio version was perfect with the growling masculine voice and film noir tough guy delivery.

- Robin

For a video review of 'The Automatic Detective', head over to the official RTSF YouTube channel or simply click below...

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