Shadow Robot: Wave hello to my little friend

Forget Robocop, Iron Man and Terminator. The most advanced android on the block is no clumsy Metal Mickey, but an astonishingly dextrous hand. Josh Sims gives it the thumbs up

When Rich Walker offers a hand to shake, it might strike you as rather cold. It will grip yours, applying the right amount of pressure so as to neither crush it, nor feel too floppy. It will show all the extreme sensitivity of any normal hand. But this one has been built from sensors, motors and hi-tech materials. It is the world's most advanced robot hand and yours, should you need a helping one, for £100,000.

"We started out making wheeled robots, but just getting one from here to there is such a challenge," says Walker, technical director of Shadow Robots.

"The clutter is such in my flat than even my cat has difficulty getting across the room. So we moved onto bi-pedal robots and got to the point where it would stand up. But a robot that just stands is the least interesting thing you could imagine. That's all it does. Then a Japanese company came up with the idea of investing $150m towards a similar goal. So we moved on. We figured that any robot that is going to operate in our world is going to need to handle the objects we handle. In a way, hands are more important. Even if a robot has legs, it needs to be able to do something when it gets wherever it's going."

The application for a fully roboticised hand is only now coming into its element. While Shadow Robot has built a business around creating robot hands largely for prestigious universities' advanced research purposes – for the study, for example, of how to relay data from the brain to a mechanised prosthetic, or what Walker refers to as "neural computing interfacing" – the next couple of years are likely to see its hands moving into the commercial world more successfully than past projects, among which can be included a robot dinosaur and a concept robot to do the ironing.

Clumsier robot hands are already used in car-making and other heavy industries. Shadow's will be doing the delicate if dirty work that until now only human hands could handle – the remote maintenance of offshore wind farms, handing nuclear or dangerous biological materials, bomb disposal (the MoD has already been a customer) or in space exploration. Nasa, which runs its own multimillion-dollar Robonaut project to design a humanoid robot to help humans work in space (the latest will be delivered to the International Space Station in February), was so impressed by Shadow's handiwork, that it has bought one of its hands too. The space agency immediately took it apart to see how it was done.

This would be impressive if Shadow Robots was a huge corporation. But this is not only an independent British company that deserves greater recognition, but one run out of two cramped rooms of a terraced house in a north London back street by a handful of mostly 30-something amateurs."Well, not Ugo," says Walker of Ugo Cupcic, his software engineer colleague, who has degrees in computer science, biology and artificial intelligence. "He's actually qualified. But the rest of us aren't. It's just what we've been doing for years. People came along with seemingly relevant skills. They could solder, for example. Well, more than that, they had tried to build a robot themselves at some point. It's all born of enthusiasm, which you need, because robotics is full of brick-wall challenges."

Not least, perhaps, is the public misconception of both what a robot is and how robots are likely to impact on society. With humans programmed, as it were, to expect a walking, talking Robbie (from Lost in Space), C3PO (Star Wars), Kryten (Red Dwarf) or, top of the range among the metal mickeys in popular Terminator, they may well be disappointed by Walker's assertion that, while still highly complex, your typical robot is likely to be more mundane.

"A modern dishwasher is, in effect, a highly intelligent robot focused on a particular task. It understands water, detergents, has sensoring and measuring capabilities. It acts on its world, however confined that may be," Walker says. "There are lots of ideas for domestic robots which get people excited. When you tell them it will cost half a million pounds a pop, they go 'mmm, you can buy a lot of hired help with that'. Only 14 per cent of European homes even have a dishwasher. Science fiction may have given us ideas as to what could be possible, but it has also given the public the idea that building robots is simple."

And it is not. Given that the human hand is one of the most complicated parts of the human anatomy – because of its sensitivity and strength, adaptability, dexterity and range of movement – recreating that in mechanical form, to the same dimensions, has been the product of two decades' work. Each of Shadow's 4kg hands takes three months to machine and build. Its motors, in some models, or, in others, its 40 air muscles – tiny rubber tubes covered with a plastic mesh that contract a "tendon" when the tubes are inflated, reinvented by Shadow's founder Richard Greenhill – make it a shoo-in for the world arm-wrestling championships. But its "tactile sensors" also mean it can handle an egg, tickle gently under your chin or search through sand to recover an object. Nasa was sceptical that Shadow's hand would be able to untether the fiddly link that connects a space-walking astronaut to the spacecraft. It proved no problem.

It's the fact that there are so many moving parts and the parts are so small that makes the creation of a robot hand, rather than a simple gripper, so challenging. Most humanoid robots have fewer joints in their entire structure than our hand has alone," explains Shadow's design engineer Hugo Elias, climbing over computer parts to articulate a robot hand in demonstration. "We wanted it to mimic the human hand; not just offer 10 degrees of movement but just as many as our hands have."

Might a Shadow Robot hand conceivably replace one of our own one day, just as Luke Skywalker receives in The Empire Strikes Back? Walker thinks not. Weight, for the moment, is one issue, especially given the necessity for a mobile power source too. Better to use the hand to develop a genuinely useful robot to help amputees with tasks they can no longer easily complete. It is why, he argues, in the short term at least, robots are likely to be found doing those things that future generations will look back on as insane for humans to have attempted themselves.

"Like driving a ton of metal at 70mph close to another ton coming at you at 70mph when the system in control– a person – is easily distracted, has only a 0.5 second reaction time, doesn't have radar or any traffic management system," he suggests. "We can expect to see robots driving for us in 20 years. Robots will be increasingly relevant in part because you can't just graft additional functions onto humans. Well, cyborg research people disagree with me on that one, but it's certainly not easy."

Indeed, such a thought plays to those dark, dystopian fears of a robot revolution driven by a society in which computers cogitate autonomously and robots, outpacing tardy evolution, can do all humans can do, only better. If it ever happens, Shadow Robots will have made an important contribution. Its robot hand already shows marked improvements on the flesh and blood variety. "The design of the hand is really just an accident of history, a result of hanging from trees," says Elias, warming to his theme. "The third and little fingers are very weak. The fingers can't be bent back. The thumb is the only opposable digit against four fingers. We have joints we often don't even realise we have, like the lateral movement in the ball of the thumb.

"Our robot hand has eliminated all of those problems and has more degrees of freedom than a human hand," Elias adds, with some relish. "It some respects its design is definitely an improvement on the human hand and we're always thinking of new ways for it to perform even better." Suddenly, the caption across his T-shirt – "How long before the robots attack?" – seems to be a serious question.

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