Since the term “robot” was first coined, the name has come to encompass such a massive variety of creatures that I sometimes find it hard to keep track. We’ve seen them evolve from automatons that do the most basic of tasks to unbelievably complex works of art, some of which respond in a way that’s so lifelike, it’s easy to forget that we invented them in the first place.
While some robots serve more useful purposes, some exist purely for entertainment (why else would Roboscooper come with a ‘whack mode?’) and many of the more recent innovations in robotics stem from our wish to make them… well… less robotic. With their space-bound Robonaut 2, General Motors and NASA have attempted to combine all of our favorite parts about our mechatronic companions, one that carries out an important job while appealing to the masses as a humanoid companion. How have they made him more human? By giving him a decidedly human feature: a Twitter account.
Robonaut 2 (or R2, for short) will be onboard Space Shuttle Discovery’s for launch this November, where it will be undergoing performance testing in low gravity. At this point, R2 is primarily giving out info about press releases and answering fan questions (he denies any relation to HAL and condemns his actions), but will be tweeting regular updates during the mission via @AstroRobonaut (hashtag #4R2). Eventually, engineers hope that he’ll assist astronauts with repetitive, mundane, ergonomically challenging or dangerous tasks so they can focus on the work that can only be accomplished by humans. Seeing Robonaut 2 on a spacewalk isn’t hard to imagine if you watch some of the videos of him in action. He’s incredibly dexterous, and could be a big improvement over the clumsy robotic arms we’re so used to.
When I first heard about a Tweeting space robot, I have to say I was a little disappointed. I couldn’t help but feel like a space suit and a faked Twitter personality aren’t enough for me to feel like a robot has crossed the threshold between man and machine. But, after reading his updates, I began to appreciate the idea for what it’s doing: moving information about his upcoming mission to a larger (and potentially younger) audience. And anyone with a programming background will appreciate that his first tweet begins with “Hello World!”