Sweeney Todd is a fictional Victorian barber, featured in a 2007 Tim Burton movie, who would murder his customers using a straight razor. Skynet is a fictional killer AI from the Terminator movies that brought humanity doom with killer robots.
One very brave roboticist is working on a field that dangerously intersects those two fictional portrayals. John Peter Whitney, of Northeastern University College of Engineering, has been testing robotic shavers.
This is most definitely not something you should try at home. Thankfully, however, Whitney has documented his progress for us, so we can watch with our hands covering our eyes.
A close shave
It is important to point out that the robot Whitney uses in his demonstration is not autonomous, though he and a team from Northeastern University aim to use the findings to further the field of robotics for uses such as surgery and medicine.
An operator was in complete control of the blade at all times, using a remote robot arm as can be seen in the video below — the action starts at about 23:40.
So thankfully, the Skynet issue is off the table for the time being, but what's stopping the remote shave demonstration going all Sweeney Todd? Firstly, Whitney put his life in the — robot-controlling — hands of a very capable professional barber named Jesse Cabbage from Somerville, Massachusetts’ Dentes Barbershop.
Secondly, the robotic arm uses high-fidelity feedback. Whitney has previously worked on a unique fluidic actuator system, which closely resembles a teleoperated hydraulic transmission. The system uses tubes containing water to transmit forces from a primary stage to a secondary stage, allowing for a very responsive control for the operator.
Importantly, forces can be pushed back through the tubes to the operator's hand. So, in this case, the barber can feel the straight razor pushing against Whitney's face, allowing him to apply just the right amount of force, just as if he were shaving the man himself.
Medical and rehabilitation robots of the future
So will robot straight razor shavers be a thing in the future? Maybe — though we won't be using them any time soon. The goal here, however, was to demonstrate how fluidic actuators can be used in medical settings as they allow for very precise work to be done with sharp tools.
The robot arm's delicate touch allows for a wealth of opportunities: "these traits and behaviors are especially interesting for applications where we must interact with delicate and uncertain environments," Whitney told IEEE Spectrum.
Whitney mentioned, "Medical robots, assistive and rehabilitation robots, and exoskeletons, and shared-autonomy teleoperation for delicate tasks," as potential specific uses.
A paper, which goes into more detail on the system and its specific use for exploring MRI-compatible remote needle biopsy, tiled “Series Elastic Force Control for Soft Robotic Fluid Actuators,” is available on arXiv.
Last year, we reported on a newly-developed self-aware robotic arm that can recognize and repair itself. Please, just please, don't combine that with the sharp-tool wielding robotic arm. What's that we were saying about Skynet again?