Scientists tell us (and they have no reason to lie) that the last common ancestor of chimps and humans lived about 6 million years ago, so it’s reasonable to assume that our long-distant relatives walked on their knuckles. What we’d like to know is how they learned to walk upright, thereby freeing their hands to do important stuff (you know, like pouring beer and pressing buttons on the remote).
We may be about to find out. A while back, boffins at the German Research Centre for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) teamed up with researchers at the University of Bremen to produce a robot ape they called iStruct. Their goal was to increase the efficiency of a complex walking robot by using “intelligent structures”. It was a demanding project, to put it mildly: just take a look at the picture. Those servos, sensors, artificial muscles and tendons make the human body look childishly simple by comparison. (Okay, I know that’s not true… I’m just marvelling at their technological expertise.)
To develop a so-called multi-locomotion system (that is, provide the means to walk quadrupedally or bipedally), the rigid connection between the front and rear body was replaced by an active artificial spine, which – as they rightly point out – is not an independent functional unit, but rather “a sub-component of a more complex biomechanical system consisting of a variety of muscles, bones and tendons”.
We understand the robot ape also has very sensitive feet, thanks to a high sensor density, including a 6-axis force/torque sensor, an array of 43 pressure-sensors, a digital 3-axis accelerometer, and digital magnetic angular encoders to monitor every moving axis of the foot and ankle structure. At present, iStruct can do little more than stand upright without falling on its face. Although this may not sound like a special skill, it’s a feat that has yet to be accomplished by one of my friends after his regular visit to the pub.