Robotics for Human Augmentation

Hugh Herr, Advisory Board


Fundamental advances in robotics will extend human sensory experience, physicality, and cognition to an unprecedented level. Aided by augmentation technology, the future human will be stronger, faster, less prone to injury, and more productive. Future technologies will not only compensate for human disability but will drive human capacities beyond innate physiological levels, enabling humans to perform a diverse set of tasks with both anthropomorphic and non-anthropomorphic extended bodies. For example, the field of robotics has already advanced wearable supernumary limbs that interface mechanically with the body, giving a person additional limbs to extend physicality beyond traditional limits (Parietti and Asada, IEEE Transactions on Robotics, 2016). Augmentative technologies will have a transformative influence on broad social, political, and economic spheres, affecting the future of sport, labor productivity, human longevity, and disability.

Science Robotics seeks manuscripts that communicate seminal discoveries within the emerging science of human augmentation, addressing the scientific principles that underlie novel robotic technology. Manuscripts of exceptionally high quality are sought that examine the use of biomechanical, biochemical, and neurological models of the human body to guide the designs of augmentation technologies for persons with either unusual or normal physiologies.

Tissue-synthetic interfaces connecting the biological body to a machine are of paramount importance to the future of augmentative human-robot interaction. Future technology will intimately interact with the cells of our bodies, exchanging information chemically, electrically, mechanically, and optically. In their seminal paper in Science Translational Medicine, Raspopovic et al. (2014) described a methodology for the afferent feedback of cutaneous touch from a hand prosthesis.  Through the use of intrafascicular electrodes, an artificial electrical stimulation of the median and ulnar nerve fascicles was performed to feedback sensory information measured in real time from a hand prosthesis.  Such an afferent neural connection enabled a human test participant with an upper-extremity amputation to distinguish both stiffness and shape of three distinct objects grasped by the worn prosthetic hand, as well as three distinct force levels. The sensory feedback was achieved through the application of distinct electric signatures in the conversion from synthetic hand sensory information to nerve stimulation.  To extend human perception into a robotic end effector has fundamental implications to robotic performance, extending tool use into a new era of human-machine technological embodiment where the boundary between what is biological and what is not, what is human and what is not, becomes increasingly blurred. Science Robotics seeks manuscripts like Raspopovic et al. (2014) that articulate a truly seminal discovery, fundamentally changing the nature of robotics and how humans relate to the built, designed world.