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Looks like a man, walks like a man, thinks like a… robot

Professor Owen Holland of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science is leading a project to develop a robot whose body will function in a way internally and externally identical to human beings.

The ECCERobot (Embodied Cognition in a Compliantly Engineered Robot) is being built with the idea that we must replicate the human muscular systems and bones in order to create an electronic, functional machine that will truly behave like a human.

Previously robot developers have attempted to replicate the actions of humans without replicating our internal behaviour.

Holland has deemed this new type of robot functioning anthropomimetic; the robot will mimic us inside and out.

The robot is being built in this way partially to investigate the capacity robots have for cognition and consciousness of their surroundings.

The thought is that a machine’s capacity for learning about the world and learning to react and adapt in environments will be strengthened if it functions in the same complex way we do.

Another aim is simply to create a life-like robot. Holland states on his website that: “If you use the right principles, you get the right output. Our claim is that humanoid robots should be designed using human-like principles.”

Humanoid robots, machines that carry out tasks in an apparently human manner, tend to be built to replicate human movement but don’t replicate internal behaviour.

This leads to robots moving in a stereotypically mechanical fashion. The anthropomimetic robots have been developed at the University of Sussex using simple materials and motors to create the same musculature as humans, and so very similar patterns of movement.

Some of the tendons on the arms of the robot are made from bungee cords, and the contraction and release of the ‘muscles’ are servomotors which are commonly found in screwdrivers.

This new method of robot building is exciting the global robot community, with the ECCERobot being showcased at events worldwide, and the developers picking up awards in Istanbul and Switzerland.

However Karl, a first year at the University of Sussex, finds this prospect alarming. He said, “Robots are robots. It’s unnatural for them to be that much like humans.”

Holland says that there is nothing to worry about: “the only resemblance these robots have to real humans is external and superficial: they look like us, but their operational principles are so far removed from our own.”

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