A new task for robots — brushing people’s hair — gives us a good example of automation decision-making. Automation increases productivity, keeps people safe from toxic environments and dangerous tasks, and does some things better than people can. But not all tasks are really suited to automation. So let’s figure it out — down really need hair-brushing robots?
Can robots brush hair?
Robots can’t really do everything. They can only fold laundry if you have a very flexible definition of “fold” and “laundry,” plus an unlimited budget and all the time in the world.So can they really brush hair?
Here’s a video from MIT showing their new hair-brushing robot. You can see that the robot is doing something that an observer could identify as brushing hair. We also noticed that the robot pulls hair up from the bottom of the wig and includes it in the next hair-brushing stroke. This would definitely tangle the hair if they let the robot continue.
We also notice that the hair in the wigs is not changed. It does not end up neater, more organized, or more attractive. The robot is doing something like hair brushing.
This video from a year ago shows a robot actually brushing hair on a human being’s head. Again, there is a hairbrushing-like movement, but even with a very cooperative human subtly flicking her hair out of the way before the next stroke, it’s hard to pretend that any actual hair brushing is taking place.
Obviously, robots like these aren’t doing much. But hair brushing isn’t always about results. In these examples, the researchers are thinking about stroke victims or patients in assisted-living facilities. A robot could brush patients’ hair to free up the staff in these facilities.
For years, various hair-brushing robots have used different kinds of models and programming to identify hair, to analyze its texture to brush appropriately for different degrees of curliness, and to avoid hurting the owner of the hair.
The sensors and programs involved have in MIT’s example figured out that untangling hair should start toward the end of the hair, not at the top. They also know that it takes more force to remove a tangle than just to move a hairbrush through hair which is not tangled. The model is sensitive to different levels of curl.
Back in 2010, Panasonic debuted a robot that could shampoo hair and blow-dry it, but it’s not clear whether it used a hairbrush or not. This was intended for hospitals and elder care facilities, but was tested in Japanese hair salons. It was gone by 2015, but we haven’t found out why. Maybe its mathematical models just weren’t up to the job.
In an assisted-care facility, it is very likely that hair brushing meets more than one need. Avoiding or removing tangles could be a real goal, but establishing a human connection and causing the patient to feel cared for is probably just as important. We don’t think the robot is going to accomplish that.
As robots take on tasks that have provided jobs for unskilled people in the past, brushing the hair of patients with limited mobility could be a very good example of a job that should be kept for human beings.