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Robotics Week Opens at MSI, Includes Mind-Controlled Super Suit

By Sam Cholke | April 6, 2013 8:38am

HYDE PARK — A robotic appendage twitched and then shuddered to life in the rotunda of the Museum of Science and Industry as Kathy Fitzgerald mentally pictured moving her arm from the armrest of her wheelchair.

“I was just thinking about moving my arm up,” Fitzgerald said with a look of shock as the white Hybrid Assistive Limb robotic suit jerked in response to her thoughts.

The HAL suit is one of more than 20 robots on display at the 5700 S. Lake Shore Drive museum for National Robotics Week, which began Friday.

The legs of the HAL suit are on display and visitors can try hooking up a few small sensors to their arm that allow them to control the suit, which can amplify a person’s strength five fold.

The suit could fully support Fitzgerald’s body and allow her to walk and move her arms unassisted, according to Takatoshi Kuno from Cyberdyne, the Japanese company that developed HAL.

“I’ve been in a chair 26 years, this would be amazing,” said Fitzgerald, who has volunteered at the museum for the last six years. “Right now, I’m totally dependent on someone else’s help.”

Kuno said Cyberdyne is currently developing a robotic hand similar to the HAL suit.

Abbey Donahue, 10, had a look of intense concentration as she chatted and pet Paro, a robotic seal pup that can respond to the human voice and touch. The robot was developed to sooth the elderly and others who could benefit from having a cuddly animal around.

“I thought it was genius, it was just like a real animal but it was a robot,” said Donahue, who was visiting from Cleveland, Ohio.

Her brother, Ted, 8, chimed in that he also thought it was genius.

“It was really fun,” he said. “It responds to everything you say — I mostly said ‘Hi.’”

Many of the robots were developed in Japan, and many of the inventors were on hand to talk to guests through translators for opening day.

“I don’t think we’re really as aware of it as they are in say Japan,” John Beckman, director of exhibit and business development at the Museum, adding that Americans will likely become more aware of robots as they become as ubiquitous as cell phones. “I think it’s perhaps where the personal computer was in the 1970s.”

This weekend the HAL suit and Murata Boy, a bike-riding robot, will be on display, with other robots and events rotating through out the week. Robotics Week ends with a competition between high school robot builders on April 14.

For more information and a full schedule of demonstrations, visit www.msichicago.org/whats-here/events/national-robotics-week.