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Robots will soon be able to run with scalding hot cups of coffee

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A robot with arms making coffee in Beijing

A robot making coffee in Beijing
Photo: Sun Zifa/China News Service (Getty Images)

Though it’s important to maintain a healthy fear of robots, the uprising of our future oppressors is (probably) a long way off, so for the time being, we can all breathe easy. Right now the robots are in the baby stages of their development, still struggling to master human skills like pizza making or walking with a cup of coffee without spilling it all over themselves.

Scalding hot coffee is dangerous for humans, but it can be outright deadly to robots, what with their wires and computer chips and things that go beep-boop. That’s one of the many “good” reasons scientists are trying to figure out how to design robots that can safely walk around while holding containers full of hot liquid—because it turns out that a human’s ability to do this is, apparently, very impressive and not fully understood.

A team of engineers from Arizona State University have published a paper in Physical Review Applied called “Synchronous Transition in Complex Object Control,” which is exactly the sort of headline robots can hide behind undetected. Thankfully Phys.org summarized the paper for those of us who fear robots but lack PhD-level comprehension: The study examined how human hands manipulate a complex object, the idea being that researchers can then dissect and analyze those movements and teach them to robots.

The ASU team gave each human volunteer a cup containing a small ball, then asked them to rotate the cups at a steady rhythm; as long as the ball stayed in the cup, they were allowed to go at whatever speed they felt most comfortable. The researchers found the wrists of those that went slow and steady oscillated through a repeated pattern of simple movements, while those that rotated faster displayed, for lack of a better term, jankier movements. (If you’d like to see someone explain in-phase synchronization and antiphase synchronization properly, here’s a video. If not, I hope my half-assed explanation sufficed.)

The results indicate that humans can instantly switch between movement patterns without thinking, meaning that when you’re sprinting down the sidewalk with a hot cup of joe, your arm, wrist, and hand muscles are continually adjusting to keep your coffee in the cup where it belongs. We’re so impressive! Lead researcher Professor Ying-Cheng Lai believes that in the not-too-distant future, robots will be able to replace humans in jobs that involve handling complex objects. Perhaps it’s time to start keeping a closer eye on our old friend Flippy the Robot.

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