The pioneering creator of mind-controlled robots tells us why society and business have everything to gain and nothing to fear from the development of humanoids.

Professor Gordon Cheng has been interested in robots for as long as he can remember. “I’ve never completely analyzed why,” he says. “I’ve always been fascinated by things that move and the idea that you can construct something that can come to life, be mobile and communicate with people. It fits with my personality, too. I take apart every machine I get to find out how it works.”

Cheng is founder and director of the Institute of Cognitive Systems (ICS) at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) in Germany, and during his career he has been attributed with pioneering breakthroughs in the field of humanoid robotics. For example, Cheng has given robots the sense of touch via an artificial robotic “skin” – hundreds of small hexagonal cells loaded with microprocessors and sensors that can, for example, recognise changes in temperature, pressure and proximity to other objects. After all, skin is an important sensory organ for humans, he points out. It makes sense that it should be for robots, too.

Plus, under a collaborative initiative called the Walk Again Project with U.S.-based Professor Miguel Nicolelis, he co-created a mind-controlled robotic suit – an exoskeleton made of titanium, aluminum and steel – that helped a paraplegic man, Juliano Pinto, kick a ball at the 2014 World Cup opening ceremony in Brazil. “I felt that moment was the beginning of something beautiful,” remembers Cheng. “At the time, many people didn’t believe that the exoskeleton would work; but it did and clearly showed benefit to Juliano.”

Born in Macau and raised in Australia, Cheng initially worked in logistics as national IT manager for a transport company. On completing his Ph.D, however, he moved into robotics research, learning about the science of the brain and founding the department of humanoid robotics and computational neuroscience at the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute in Kyoto, Japan. He has been conducting research into, among other things, brain-controlled robotics at the Institute for Cognitive Systems since 2010.

Cheng’s real passion is for creating humanoids – robots that take human form. “Robots come in many shapes and sizes,” he says. “They can be industrial machines, or come with wheels, for example. But the robots I like to build are the ones that have human form. It’s one of the most challenging things to do.”

Tell us more about the work you do at the Institute for Cognitive Systems.

When I started my work here I wanted to achieve two things: create better technology through new understanding of the brain; and understand the brain better through the creation of new technology. So there’s a scientific element and an engineering element to our work. In the end, though, what I’m most interested in is using robotics to create a ­societal impact. That’s why I want to make mind-controlled exoskeletons that could benefit spinal cord injury patients, for example, and those with neurological conditions. If what we do here could have a positive effect on 20 million people around the world, then that would be the most wonderful thing.

Why are you so focused on creating humanoid robots?

It occurred to me years ago that a humanoid robot would be able to interact with humans more easily. The environment in which we live is constructed for humans, so we wouldn’t have to adapt it; and, by studying this technology, it’s possible to take our findings and make life better for human beings. The exoskeleton came from our work on humanoid development, for example.

Why have you created artificial skin for robots?

In most industrial environments, robots are kept behind barriers and humans don’t make close contact with them because it’s not safe to do so: there’s risk of collision. I think skin is the missing component because its sensors will help detect collisions and so make robots safer and more interactive.

Will robots ever be indistinguishable from humans?

I think that will happen in the far, far future. Appearance-wise we can do it now: a dummy that doesn’t move can look just like a human, but functionality is still very difficult. Robots with human cognitive capacity would also require a substantial breakthrough. And it probably wouldn’t involve the technology we are currently using. So I wouldn’t want to bet on that one! I think all the interest surrounding AI is great, though: it’s pushing technology forward.

Do you have any concerns about how robots could affect employment?

Look at the initial reaction people had to computers. They thought their jobs were under threat but, in the end, the computer revolution has been more positive than negative for society. In fact, it has created more jobs. It’ll be the same with robots. Once the robot becomes more functional and more reliable, it will be able to assist us in our daily lives and do the things we don’t want to do any more, or complete tasks that are damaging to us. Humans will still be able to do the tasks that require emotional thought and decision-making. Robots will come. It’s just that they haven’t found their niche yet.

How do you think robots will develop in the logistics industry?

I recently saw a last-mile case study where robots were carrying goods down the road and delivering them to households. That makes a lot of sense because the technology is mature enough for it to be reliably deployed. People will get used to robots like these and treat them like any other device. There are other demanding areas of logistics where robots help, such as lifting heavy objects for example. That will develop further. — Tony Greenway

Published: May 2017

Image: Andreas Heddergott / TU Muenchen