Bush Robots - Fingers On Your Fingers On Your Fingers...

In his 1941 novel Methuselah's Children, Robert Heinlein writes about a human baby modified by an alien race. The baby was given the following "improvements" (among others):

"...it's body architecture has been redesigned for greater efficiency, our useless simian hangovers have been left out, and its organs have been rearranged in a more sensible fashion. You can't say it's not human, for it is... an improved model. Take that extra appendage at the wrist. That's another hand, a miniature one... backed up by a microscopic eye. You can see how useful that would be, once you got used to the idea."

Heinlein also pursued similar ideas a bit earlier in his 1940 novella Waldo, his story about, well, waldoes - he originated the concept as well as the term. A waldo is a remote manipulator that mimics human motion at larger and smaller scales. For example, waldoes that looked like mechanical hands that were six feet across could bend steel girders, as well as "tiny pixy hands, an inch across" used for miniature work. In his later work Time Enough for Love, he wrote about "ultramicrominiature waldoes" that could be used for gene surgery.

Roboticist Hans Moravec, working with sf writer Robert Forward, conceived of a more "fractal" version of this idea; a "bush robot" (also called a "Fractal branching ultra-dexterous robot") that literally had manipulators on its manipulators on its manipulators... you get the idea.


(Moravec Bush Robot simulation)

Moravec states that this idea is at least a half-century from being practical; among the advances required are

  • Computational power increased at least a millionfold in density
  • Capacity to build mechanical structures over the entire range of scales
  • Scalable high-power actuators
  • Scalable high-density power distribution and storage
  • High-strength materials.
Update: 09-Feb-2009 See the entry for Christmas bush motile robot for more information from Forward.

The Christmas Bush can stick a "hand" inside a delicate piece of equipment, and using its lasers as a light source and its detectors as eyes, rearrange the parts inside for a near instantaneous repair. The Christmas Bush also has the ability to detach portions of itself to make smaller motiles. These can walk up the walls and along the ceilings with the tiny cilia holding onto microscopic cracks in the surface.

End update.

Ken MacLeod, in Engine City, wrote about a kind of alien tarantula that was directly inspired by Moravec's work:

...At the end of each appendage's eight fingers there are tinier appendages, eight of them, and these fingers' fingerlets are what open out to grasp the microscopic frictions of the pane...
(Read more about the alien tarantula)

For a bizarre illustration of both Heinlein's and Moravec's ideas that is perfectly suited to Halloween, see the Dactyl Fractal Zoom at Zapato Productions. A static sample is shown below.


(Dactyl Fractal Zoom)

Be sure to see this finger fractal zoom for yourself (and check out the Zapato Productions homepage). Find out more about Robert Heinlein's waldoes; see more on Hans Moravec and bush robots. Found this one on Posthuman Blues.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 10/30/2005)

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