11 July 2024

A dancer stands motionless while a white robotic arm rises from behind her. As she starts to move, another white limb joins in, creating a performance where her biological and robotic arms move seamlessly in a wordless interaction between human and machine.

Meanwhile in a Tokyo lab, a Japanese university professor laughs as four robotic limbs move around him while he spreads his human arms apart, looking almost like a bionic arachnid in a dystopian future.

Masahiko Inami and his team at the University of Tokyo have created a wearable – and exchangeable – multi-armed device to explore the social interaction between multiple users of the robotic limbs.

The “Jizai Arms” – named for a concept that roughly denotes the freedom to do as one pleases – are made up of a wearable base unit with sockets for up to six articulated arms.

“The main feature of these arms is not just to give people more than two arms, but to be able to remove and attach them to share with other people via the sockets on the back,” Inami said, adding that in future other attachments like wings or a drone could become a reality.

A base unit with four robotic arms weigh approximately 14 kg (30.8 pounds) and can come with a variety of “hand” designs, such as fingers like a human hand or a three-pronged claw.

For now, the Jizai Arms can be controlled remotely by manipulating a scaled-down version of the arms, moving the wearable version in sync. Two members of Inami’s team manoeuvred separate arms from a control unit during its recent demonstration to Reuters, while their research paper specified that at its current status, there is no perfect way of controlling multiple arms simultaneously.

The project was inspired in part by bunraku, a form of traditional Japanese puppet theatre, and Japanese novelist and Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata’s quasi-horror short story about a man who borrowed a young woman’s arm and proceeded to spend the night with it. In contrast to the vision of robots and AI replacing humans, Inami’s work seeks to explore how technology can function as an extension of the human body.

Inami believes its uses could range from post-disaster search and rescue to new forms of artistic expression, similar to the dancer moving in concert with the machine.

“I want to see new types of performance using the body, new art forms being created. I’d like to stimulate creativity and accelerate its spread throughout society. That’s the kind of world I want to create,” he said.

By Reuters