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Hair-Brushing Robot Shows How Artificial Intelligence May Help the Disabled

December 12, 2019, 2:24 AM UTC

A team of researchers have created a robotic arm capable of brushing people’s hair.

Although that may seem like a joke, the intent behind this hair-combing bot, created by computer science professor Stefanos Nikolaidis, from the University of Southern California, and his students, is a serious one.

Nikolaidis said he was inspired to work on the project after having spent time with stroke victims. Interviewing them about tasks with which they might want help, many stroke survivors, particularly women, he said, mentioned the desire to have someone—or something—to help brush their hair.

The task, which involves a different range of motion for each individual’s head and hair as well as a delicate control around how far into the hair to insert a comb so that it brushes the hair effectively without causing injury, is actually not a trivial task for a robot to master, Nikolaidis said.

The robot his team built uses a camera to create a 3-D map of the back of a person’s head and hair so it can plan how to brush efficiently. A special copper comb, equipped with a sensor that can detect when the comb comes into contact with skin, is used to prevent the robot from harming the person whose hair it is brushing.

You can watch the robot in action here.

The USC team’s effort is actually not the first robot targeting hair care for the elderly and disabled. In 2011, the tech giant Panasonic developed a robot that could wash, massage, and blow dry. But that machine was purpose-built just for the task, whereas Nikolaidis’ group is among the first to use a general-purpose anthropomorphic robot arm for hair care and the first to take on brushing, a task that involves greater planning and motor control on the part of the robot.

Creating robots to assist people who are physically disabled is a major area of robotics research. So too are robots that can act as helpers—and, in some cases, even social companions—for the elderly.

While the robot the USC team built is a leap forward, human stylists needn’t be too concerned for their jobs— at least not yet.

In a demonstration of the robotic arm at the conference on Neural Information Processing Systems (NeurIPS) in Vancouver, Canada, earlier this week, the robot sometimes failed to run the comb completely through longer hair before lifting the comb for the next stroke. Static electricity also proved to be a problem. And the robot is mostly designed to brush hair—not to shape it into any particular style.

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