Some Robots Are Starting to Move More Like Humans

Robots usually look rigid and nonhuman, with joints engineered to avoid the elasticity that can make their movements less predictable and harder to control. Roboy, a robot developed by Rolf Pfeifer and colleagues in the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the University of Zurich, is an example of a different approach that is slowly gaining momentum.
Roboy has a four-foot-tall human shape and a set of “muscles” inspired by the human musculoskeletal system. The plastic muscles work together via electrical motors and artificial tendons. Tendon-driven systems like Roboy mimic the flexible mechanics of biology, and could result in a new class of robots that are lighter, safer, and move in a more natural way.
“If you’re interested in just getting a job done—in a particular movement or something—then we have traditional methods that are based on motors or joints,” says Pfeifer, who directs the Zurich AI lab. “If you’re interested in more natural kinds of movements, tendon-driven technology needs to be explored.”
Mimicking human movement is ideal for a robot designed to take on human tasks (see “Meet Atlas, the Robot Designed to Save the Day”). But such robots can also help researchers explore how biomechanics can give rise to more intelligent behavior, a field known as embodied intelligence or cognition. “Most people know that intelligence requires the body, but they don’t know why,” says Pfeifer. “I think [Roboy] can be a really interesting research platform for learning in systems with many degrees of freedom.”