This Weird Robot Hand Won’t Let Go of the 90s

Nostalgia is only human.

by Jordan Pearson
Sep 30 2015, 1:35pm

GIF: YouTube

It's only human to long for a time when light-up sneakers and Pokemon cards were your main preoccupations, far from the depressing adult world of bills, shitty apartments, and wondering if your partner is cruising Tinder. Sometimes you just want to grab hold of your youth and never let go.

Maybe you'll finally dig out that old VHS camcorder from your parents' basement and make music videos. Maybe you'll start making beats that exclusively sample the theme songs to your favourite after school TV shows of the 1990s. Maybe you'll burn a mix to a CD-R for your new beau.

Nostalgia might be a wholly human response—a reaction to accelerated digital capitalism, the technologies of its communication, and the psychic war zone they breedbut a new rubber robot from MIT's CSAIL lab knows exactly how you feel.

In a demo video for the bot, which was revealed at a conference last month, its hand grasps relics from the 1990s such as CDs and Beanie Babies. I have no clue why MIT chose these objects, but it's making me feel things.

The bot uses silicon "fingers," which are slipped over a 3D printed plastic base, to deftly grab hold of delicate objects without crushing them and uses sensors embedded in the hand to identify what they are. The researchers programmed the hand with the ability to infer what it's holding based on the shape of the rubber hand while it's grasping said object.

GIF: YouTube

The hand is known as a "soft" robot, because it uses rubber and air instead of metal and motors to move. Air is pushed through the silicon appendages, causing bubbles inside to expand, and the gripper to stretch and bend. The hand was designed to fit onto Rethink Robotics' Baxter robot, which is made for the workplace. Right now, Baxter would have trouble picking up a piece of paper without ruining it.

Because the rigid structure underneath the rubber fingers is 3D printed, the idea is that the hand could be custom-fitted to other robots, too.

Yes, this little hand will improve the capabilities of robots that could one day displace human workers. How's that for some sweet, comfortable nostalgia? For some, it's an idea concerning enough to make them want to reach for the stuffed animal they held tight as a kid.

GIF: YouTube