Crazy 'Doc Ock' Robot Arms Can Learn The Best Way To Pick Up Objects [VIDEO]

on March 17, 2014 1:00 PM EDT

The Bionic Handling Assistant looks a lot like Doc Ock's arms in Spiderman. The robot is meant to be used in industrial environments, not to assist super villains. Photo: Festo
The Bionic Handling Assistant looks a lot like Doc Ock's arms in Spiderman. The robot is meant to be used in industrial environments, not to assist super villains. Photo: Festo


German engineering company Festo has unveiled their Bionic Handling Assistant, a robotic system modeled on elephants' trunks and bearing a striking resemblance to Spiderman villain Doc Ock's crazy tentacle arms. The robot was created for use in industrial environments, where it will work safely alongside humans for repetitive tasks like picking up and moving objects.

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"Elephants use their flexible trunks to grip objects precisely," explains New Scientist, which sent a reporter to check out the Doc Ock robot in the lab. "Now, a new lightweight system is mimicking the way they work. Sensors detect the path towards an object, and pneumatics control the arms' stiffness. The gripper can then move in one of 11 directions to carefully pick up an object."

A New York man's Doc Ock Halloween costume, which doesn’t look quite as cool as the robotic Doc Ock arms. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
A New York man's Doc Ock Halloween costume, which doesn’t look quite as cool as the robotic Doc Ock arms. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The grippers currently in development come in three sizes: the largest gripper can grab an object the size of a grapefruit, while the smallest can pick up a hazelnut. The collapsable fin-shaped grippers form a cage-like trap around objects, rather than squeezing them, to reduce damage to the objects.

What's even cooler about the robot system is that, like a human baby, the robot "learns" how to best pick up objects by grasping at them until it achieves the desired result, a process known as "goal babbling." When babies successfully complete a task (like grabbing an object) they form muscle memories; similarly, the robot learns the right process for picking up an object through trial and error and remembers the right way to do it.

"I can vouch for that," writes Paul Marks in the New Scientist, who got to play around with the robot. "[I]t initially resists, but then yields and follows my movement. The next time I try to push it to the same spot, it moves easily, because the behavior has been learned. The robot now has muscle memory--which makes it seem even more alive."

Hopefully the robot is not alive enough to achieve consciousness and turn on us. According to every science fiction movie ever, this is a very real possibility.

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