Jamie Paik isn’t your average robotics researcher, and the machines she and her team develop in the Reconfigurable Robotics Lab at EPFL are every bit as unusual. Are they conducting tests here for a future where machines will become such an intuitive part of our everyday lives as smartphones are today?

Tribots. Photo: Basul Stücheli

The word ‘robotics’ makes you think of little mechanical men or rotating metal arms, but certainly not of something like this: an unusual backpack with two pressure cylinders, tubes and rods, connected to bulging packages on the chest, back and sides of the wearer, an exosuit. The fact that Jamie Paik’s colleagues are strapping the latest creation onto their own backs and testing it out reflects the image of a laboratory known for its experimental designs. What Paik and her team do in the Reconfigurable Robotics Lab at EPFL is perhaps something like an art department in the world of robot research. And that hardly comes as a surprise since Paik had once considered studying art. But then she moved into the field of technology. Then again, she has never had any fear of “going down unconventional routes”.

She has consistently drawn her inspiration from unusual sources: one of her most successful designs originates from the odontomachus ant but bases its working principles on folding joints – a bit like origami. The tiny robots called Tribots can communicate with each other, act and create different motion sequences by reshaping themselves. These little helpers could potentially be used en masse for search and rescue operations. Some colleagues and industries would have found it difficult and rather “cute” in the early days – a veiled insult to Paik. She has always been concerned with very practical considerations, and the perception of the robot as being “cute” betrayed the limits of conventional robotics in her eyes. For a long time, this field had been bent on the idea of building ever more powerful, stronger, more high-precision machines. But it did not reflect its environment at all; robots slavishly followed command schemes – and they have become an ever greater danger for any people who get too close to them. We’ve all seen those pictures from the car-manufacturing industry: isolated production lines where robots do their monotonous work behind barriers and signs for “authorised personnel only”.

Paik had a completely different “collaborative” idea about robots from the outset. As well as a different definition. She views a robot as an intelligent machine with the ability to provide feedback. The intelligence of this machine can be reflected on very different levels. It can be achieved in the possible movement options and not solely on the highly complex artificial intelligence. A decade has now passed since the origami robots were unveiled, and attitudes are gradually changing in the scientific community as well as in industry. The need for new intelligence and automation in the manufacturing industries, personalised technologies and health care have forced the field to open up to other forms and concepts of robots: adaptive and interactive human companions.

Professor Jamie Paik

Robotics artist and researcher Jamie Paik benefits from the possibility of freeform robotics in the Reconfigurable Robotics Lab. Photo: Basil Stücheli

One of the examples is the soft exosuit, which serves to give active force feedback to the user via soft pneumatic actuators distributed over the upper body. The idea here is to support the body in its movements or to protect it against false movements with sufficient counter-pressure, for example during construction work. Paik’s laboratory, the Reconfigurable Robotics Lab also maintains a stock of finer variants of these body-oriented machines; elastic skins with embedded pressure points that enable interaction via the sense of touch. This could finally make VR (virtual reality), a physical experience. Paik calls it TR; tangible reality. Is that still robotics in the narrower sense? Paik is not all that interested in that question; for her the ideal robot is invisible anyway, blending into our lives so effortlessly that we don’t even notice it any more. Her work is chiefly driven by a desire to improve the quality of people’s lives, especially for those with functional difficulties. In Paik’s view, “today’s technology is not really democratic”. For that to change, there would have to be a suitably diverse team of people involved, from the concept, through development, to the final design.

In Paik’s view “today’s technology is not really democratic. For that to change, there would have to be a suitably diverse team of people involved, from the concept, through development, to the final design.”

She would give her machines a certain degree of autonomy, but in the end it would always have to be human beings who decided what to do. There would be only one instance in which she would design machines to be autonomous; for space exploration. For her, this is the ultimate challenge in robotics. And then she gets a little philosophical at the end of the chat. You never really know what you’ll encounter in space. Adaptability is the decisive factor for survival there. Here on Earth, we humans are vastly superior to most artificial systems in this respect. But isn’t that simply because evolution has taught us to claim that our intelligence, whether it be mental or intuitively physical, is a reflection of this environment? In space, it would be more of a level playing field. And adaptive robots, perhaps even swarms of them, could perform tasks which we humans are simply not equipped to do, optimised as we are for Earth.