Imagine a world where workers delegate arduous tasks to humanoid robots that can mimic human activity.. I’ll take it one step further. Imagine a world where every person has their own android that observes and fulfils their every wish. This may sound a little far-fetched or too science fiction-y, but believe it or not, we are witnessing the beginning of this transformation; and it all starts with mimicking the human hand.
Our world is built for human hands. We have designed a world of tools and objects to be purposefully used and controlled by the human hand. Think of activities like grabbing an object firmly and picking it up steadily, such as holding a pen to write, a cup of coffee to drink, a screwdriver to turn screws, or a smartphone to type on. As simple and mundane as these activities may seem, they are, in fact, utilising a system of fingers and joints that follow a complex mechanism of up to 27 degrees of freedom. That means there are 27 independent movements that work conjunctly to perform those so-called ‘simple’ activities.
Mimicking the human hand would require following a similar mechanism with the same number of degrees of freedom. This has been no easy challenge, at least until a company called Clone Robotics set off earlier this year to develop the Clone Hand. It is a biomimetic, robotic hand that looks like a human hand, moves like a human hand, and is built like a human hand – only from artificial materials. It is a mesmerising thing to see, especially with the strength and capabilities it has shown.
But how realistic is this? Why and where do we need such technology? And how did Clone Robotics create the Clone Hand?
Humanoids are inevitable, and the hand is the starting point
A humanoid – or a human-looking android – is a robot with an anthropomorphic body. Over the years, robots have taken so many different forms, but it is the humanoid that first comes to mind whenever we think of robots.
One reason is that we have always imagined how we communicate with a robot to be similar to communicating with humans. But more realistically, the major advantage is that robots can operate and navigate in an environment originally designed for humans. This minimises risk upon humans as robots would take over harsh tasks in potentially hazardous environments, such as chemical plants, nuclear waste facilities, wet labs, and space stations. In addition, mundane tasks with minimal added value to humans can be assigned to humanoids, as they can execute them consistently and efficiently, leaving humans to focus on rather creative and desirable activities.
Since work environments have been designed for humans, the primary bodily part to consider in humanoids is the hand. “The hand is one of the most complex and beautiful pieces of natural engineering in the human body,” said Dr George McGavin in his 2014 BBC article. “It gives us a powerful grip but also allows us to manipulate small objects with great precision.”
The human hand has over 30 muscles, 123 ligaments, and 27 bones that enable it to handle complex tasks. But, surprisingly enough, there are no muscles in the fingers that induce movement. The finger movement is controlled by muscles and tendons in the forearm and palm.
So, with all that complexity, how can a robotic hand mimic the human hand?