Symbiotic Machines - Technologies I

Baxter is an example of a robot that works in symbioses, although a loose one, with workers. Credit: RethinkRobotics

In January 2016 I posted some reflections on Symbiotic Machines as an area prompted by technology evolution and opening up new ethical and societal issues.

Yesterday I posted the news on the success in restoring deambulation in a monkey with a paralysed leg as consequence of an interruption at spinal cord level of the neural transmission and I pointed out the technology involved in this feat.

Also yesterday, I presented at the Future Direction Committee my thoughts on the role that IEEE can play in fostering studies and innovation in the Symbiotic Machines area, with a specific focus on the technologies involved.

There are several hues associated to the concept of Symbiotic Machines. 

The first one, at least in my perception, is related to a real symbiosis where we are dependent on a machine for our very own life.  It is what happens in a hospital intensive care area where machines are monitoring the vital signs and deliver drugs, assist respiration and purify blood taking over the kidneys’ functionality. In some instances they may even assist the heart in its pumping.

The second one is actually the reverse, where we are “breathing” life into a symbiotic prosthetics to make it operational, such as moving a prosthetic hand with our arm muscles or, more recently, with our thoughts.

The third one is probably the most important one in terms of impact, the one that will not be visible: a seamless continuum between us and machines where the terms “machine” gains a broader meaning to include any artifacts interacting with us, as a home, a car, a city.

Of course we can substitute, in each of the three categories, any living being to “us”.

What are the technologies that underpins, and make this evolution possible? I would tend to classify them into five areas:


  • acquiring data from the living being
  • transporting data
  • analyzing data to extract meaning
  • affecting the living being
  • balancing the roles of the living being(s) and the machine(s)

 Acquiring data

The variety of technologies that are available to sense what a living being is doing is increasing, including chemical, electrical, visual sensors. BCI (Brain Computer Interfaces) are an important area of evolution, they are also addressed in the FDC “Brain Initiative”. Studies on the interfacing and replication of our senses in the digital space are also important contributor to this area, like the FDC “Digital Senses Initiative”.

The crucial point here is “transparent and seamless”.  Most of current technologies have to negotiate a thread-off between accuracy and invasiveness. The more accuracy you want the more invasive the technology. We are still far from a real solution to this issue in the BCI. We are much better off when the interaction is mediated by our actions and senses, like interacting with our hands and voice to teach Baxter what to do and to work alongside with us (an example of the third type of symbioses). Take a look at the clip to see an example of a robot, EDI, designed to work alongside with workers in a symbiotic way, learning together and be a team player (this is symbiotic machine 0.5 probably, but a nice step in that direction).

Implanted sensors, such as the ones used in prosthetics, are clearly invasive but they may become transparent and the interaction may take places seamlessly, like the control of a prosthetic hand by the detection of the arm’s muscles movement.

There is a lot of research going on in the area of data acquisition and a lot more will be needed in the coming decade. This is clearly an area for cross disciplinary effort, an area where several IEEE Societies can contribute (like Robotics, Signal Processing, BioEngineering).

Author - Roberto Saracco

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