Cobots, Exoskeletions, and AI Self-Driving Cars, Oh My!

Dr. Lance B. Eliot, AI Insider

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Cobots work hand-in-hand, that’s human and robot hand-in-hand

I remember the first time that I saw a cobot in action. It was on a factory floor where I had previously helped put in place a robotic arm that performed automotive parts assembly. This cobot, considered a collaborative robot or a co-robot, or some assert it should be referred to as a “cooperative” robot, contained some of the latest new tech in AI.

In the case of the cobot, it was designed and built to be near to humans and work in unison with humans.

There were some AI developers that were hoping to ultimately replace the human worker by further refining the cobot, allowing the cobot to do the entire effort of the assembly for the part (ultimately aiming to be a fully “lights out” warehouse operation without any human workers per se).

This splitting of the task had made good sense in that the robotic arm could quickly undertake its effort and was able to do so as a “partner” with the human. To avoid having the human in-the-loop, it would be necessary to either get a cobot that had greater dexterity with human-like robotic fingers or consider redesigning the part so that it could be assembled differently.

The human workers had become comfortable with the cobot.

While I was there, the R&D group showed me a prototype of a cobot exoskeleton. In case you’ve not seen a cobot exoskeleton, imagine that you are wearing a kind of suit of armor, but it is in a skeleton or skeletal kind of shape. Some refer to these as exoframes or exosuits.

There are “dumb” exoskeletons that exist today for allowing humans to lift heavy weights.

In some cases, the exoskeleton is purely mechanical and unpowered. In other cases, the exoskeletion is powered and it is electrical or battery power that enables it to especially do the heavy lifting or take on similar kinds of tasks.

Cobot Exoskeleton a “Smart” Version of an Exoskeleton

A cobot exoskeleton is considered a “smart” version of an exoskeleton. The notion is to add AI to the exoskeleton and turn it into a collaborative robot that you wear. The cobot that I had seen on the factory floor was pretty much anchored into a specific spot on the floor. It was not moving and was not intended to be portable. Suppose instead that a human wore a cobot, allowing the human and the cobot to potentially move around. Ergo, a cobot exoskeleton.

For the aged robotic arm that I had setup for the factory, some of the arm’s instructions had been programmed, while other aspects of the arm’s efforts were undertaken by a Machine Learning (ML) approach. We had moved the robotic arm to show it what we wanted it to do, and after repeated such guidance it gradually “programmed” to how we wanted it to perform. Some cobots have a similar capability of using deep learning or Machine Learning. An advanced cobot exoskeleton would likewise have such a ML feature.

What does this have to do with AI self-driving cars?

At the Cybernetic AI Self-Driving Car Institute, we are developing AI software for self-driving cars. One interesting exploratory project involves the use of a cobot exoskeleton for purposes of aiding a human in the driving of a car. I realize this seems a rather far-fetched approach to driving, and I agree it seems an unlikely path toward the autonomous or semi-autonomous driving of cars, but I figured you’d be intrigued by the idea and want to know about it.

I’d like to first clarify and introduce the notion that there are varying levels of AI self-driving cars. The topmost level is considered Level 5. A Level 5 self-driving car is one that is being driven by the AI and there is no human driver involved.

For self-driving cars less than a Level 5, there must be a human driver present in the car. The human driver is currently considered the responsible party for the acts of the car. The AI and the human driver are co-sharing the driving task.

Another key aspect of AI self-driving cars is that they will be driving on our roadways in the midst of human driven cars too.

Returning to the topic of cobots and exoskeletons, let’s consider some aspects about the driving of a car and the use of automation to do so.

One approach to driving a car involves building all of the automation into the car itself, including the sensors to detect the surroundings, and the computer processors to run the AI software that does the driving, and so on. I’ll call this the “AI-integrated” approach.

We might decide that rather than trying to integrate the automation into the car, perhaps we might instead build a robot that can get into and out of the car, akin to a human being, and the robot will be imbued with the ability to drive a car. I’ll call this the “AI-robotic” approach.

For those of you that have never considered the idea of having a robot drive a car, it is worthwhile to take a moment and ponder the matter. Imagine that if you could build such a robot, it could then drive presumably any of the millions of today’s conventional cars. There would be no need to change the design of cars. There would be no need to retrofit existing cars. A car would be a car.

The driving robot would be a robot. When the driving robot gets into the car and sits behind the wheel, you have a completely “backward compatible” approach to automating the driving of cars. Since the robot is sitting there at the wheel of the car, we’d hope and assume that it can fully drive the car. By this I mean to suggest that the robot can’t be only partially proficient in driving a car. It might be fully equivalent to a human driver.

I realize that you could argue that perhaps we might split some of the difference, namely juice up the car so that it has some amount of automation to be able to drive, and then have a robot that also has some of the ability to drive. The car alone cannot drive itself. The robot alone cannot drive a conventional car. Instead, you might come up with a semi-automated car that can be driven by a semi-automated robot. Sure, I suppose that’s a possibility.

You might even suggest that this walking-talking kind of robot might not be fully capable to drive a car and yet have other handy uses anyway. Maybe it can help humans into and out of the car. Maybe it can do chores around your house like cleaning the house and cooking meals. Meanwhile, it can also be somewhat of a chauffeur, but only if the car itself also has some of the proficiency that perhaps we cannot otherwise build into the robot.

For example, the robot might not be equipped with sensory devices like LIDAR, radar, ultrasonic, etc. Those sensory devices could be bulky and cause the robot design to get overly large and cumbersome. Thus, the robot needs to have those capabilities built into the car that it drives.

Once the robot gets into the car, it is able to plug into the AI system of the car and become “at one” with the car. This symbiotic aspect makes us achieve a one-plus-one equals two kind of merger. Each helps the other. When the robot is finished driving, it unplugs itself from the car and gets out of the car, moving along to do whatever other chores or tasks it can do.

Human Driver Steps into an Exoskeleton to Split Driving Task

There’s another approach that also goes beyond today’s usual thinking, namely the use of a cobot and an exoskeleton. In this use case, a human that wants to drive a car gets into a cobot exoskeleton first, and then steps into the car and sits at the steering wheel.

We then have these three overall approaches involved:

  • AI-Integrated Driving: All of the automation built into the autonomous self-driving car
  • AI-Robotic Driving: All of the automation for driving is built into a robot, the car can be a conventional car or have semi-autonomous features
  • AI-Human Cobot Exoskeleton Driving: Human and a Cobot work together to drive a car, the car can be a conventional car or have semi-autonomous features

In this latter case, the human is considered in-the-loop of the driving.

I realize that for purists, the notion of keeping the human in-the-loop would seem to undermine the overarching goal of having self-driving cars or at least fully autonomous driving (note that the AI-Robotic driving is not strictly speaking a self-driving car, instead it is a car that is autonomously driven by a robot).

There are several potential reasons why keeping a human in-the-loop might make sense.

First, suppose that after trying and trying to remove the human from the loop of driving a car, AI development and advancements are unable to achieve a truly autonomously driven car. No matter what tricks or techniques are devised and employed, imagine that it just is not feasible to arrive at either a self-driving car of a Level 5 or that there is no means to construct a robot to do so either. What then?

I would suggest we would want to then find a means to keep the human in-the-loop. It could be that we only need the human for edge cases or corner cases of the driving task. This might be dicey in that I’ve already offered many reasons why co-sharing the driving task with humans and automation can be problematic. In any case, the odds are that inexorably we are going to as a society be aiming to increase the autonomous nature of cars and so having a human involved, if that’s the only way to get there, so be it, I suppose.

Another reason to potentially keep the human in-the-loop of driving might be due to humans insisting that the want to remain in-the-loop.

There are self-driving car pundits that say we must eliminate all human driving on our public roadways if we are going to reach the vaunted life-saving goals of having self-driving cars. Besides my earlier point that you cannot just magically sweep under the rug the millions of existing conventional cars, and I’ve also countered and essentially debunked the claim that we might merely alter our roadway infrastructure to have a two-tiered infrastructure, one for self-driving cars and one for human driven cars, we must also consider the societal question of whether humans will readily and willingly give up their driving privilege.

I know that the pundits would say that certainly people will gladly hand over their driver’s licenses if they knew that by doing so they would save lives. I’d say that’s quite a leap in logic and faith in how people think and are motivated. I realize another angle is that people won’t want to drive once they get accustomed to the grand convenience of being self-driven. Again, I have my doubts that everyone will see things that way.

I suppose it could be that after asking for people to voluntarily stop driving themselves, and to then deal with those that won’t capitulate willingly, there could be a law that makes it illegal for humans to drive. Those holdouts for human driving would then be caught and penalized. Maybe if the culture shifts and we gradually as a society no longer view driving as a kind of “right” and begin to see things differently that you might be able to regulate legally this last remaining “you’ll remove the steering wheel from my dead cold hands” segment of society. All of this seems a very long ways off in the future.

Meanwhile, back to the matter at hand. Let’s assume that for whatever reason you like that there are those that will want to be human drivers or that we might need human drivers to make the “last mile” toward nearly full automation.

In that case, perhaps the AI-Human cobot exoskeleton might be helpful. This blends together the human driving capability with the cobot driving capability and as augmented by the exoskeleton.

The exoskeleton might aid your use of the driving controls. The arms of the exoskeleton augment your arms when using the steering wheel. The legs of the exoskeleton augment your legs when working the brake pedal and the accelerator pedal. The cobot might be controlling the exoskeleton arms and legs, and guiding your arms and legs as appropriate during the driving task.

There you are, sitting in the driver’s seat, wearing your cobot exoskeleton. While driving on the freeway, a car in another lane starts to veer into your lane. Maybe you failed to notice the veering car, but fortunately the cobot did, which then guides your arms to turn the steering wheel to avoid the veering car, along with pushing further on the accelerator pedal to get away from the intruding car. Saved by the cobot exoskeleton driving AI system.

Suppose you go to the company Friday night party and have a bit too much to drink. You get into your car to drive home. You are wearing the cobot exoskeleton when you get into the car (no need to have been wearing it at the company party, unless you are trying to make some kind of fashion statement!). Even though you probably should not be behind the wheel of a car, the cobot exoskeleton ends up doing most of the driving and gets you home in one piece.

You might have some kind of physical disabilities that would normally inhibit your ability to drive a car, and yet the cobot exoskeletion could allow you to drive a car. You might need some cognitive added help when driving a car, and the cobot exoskeletion can do so. Perhaps novice teenage drivers might be required to initially wear a cobot exoskeletion suit to aid in learning how to drive a car. And so on.


For many people, the aspect that we might have self-driving cars is already a kind of science fiction story that appears to be coming true. Furthermore, and separately, Cobots on our factory floors make sense. Exoskeletons make sense too, and especially for working in situations involving the physical brute capability that an exoskeleton can provide. We’ve all seen various science fiction depictions of exoskeletons for especially future military applications, such as shown in the movies and in .

Does it make sense to consider having cobot exoskeletons?

And if so, would it further make sense to have ones that can help humans drive a car?

Seems like a rather radical notion.

Right now, the path appears to be the emergence of the AI-Integrated self-driving car first and foremost, and then maybe the longshot would be an AI-Robotic self-driving car, if we otherwise cannot achieve the AI-Integrated approach. The melding of a human driver and a cobot exoskeleton suit to do driving does not appear to be on any near-term horizon per se, but I don’t think we can reject it entirely and just dismiss it fully out-of-hand.

For the time being, I’d vote that we keep our eyes open to possibilities that might seem outrageous right now, since we might need to find alternatives or want alternatives further down-the-road. I’m thinking about making a cobot exoskeletion that could allow me to drive like a NASCAR driver, and if so, don’t be surprised when you see me at the winner’s circle of the Indy 500. That will be me waving, along with my cobot exoskeleton driver’s suit.

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Dr. Lance B. Eliot is a renowned global expert on AI, Stanford Fellow at Stanford University, was a professor at USC, headed an AI Lab, top exec at a major VC.

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