I Am Robot and I Am Home

Jeff Harrow Talks Robots, Synthetic Biology, Nano-things and Other Developments You’ll Miss If You Blink

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By Jeffrey R. Harrow, Principal Technologist, The Harrow Group

Robots are way past your old Robbie the Robot or Sony Aibo. In fact, they’ve gone beyond your “traditional” factory robots. Today we’re already driving down a road that, while not necessarily ending at Isaac Asimov’s positronic brain, is already following the perimeter around high-security areas.

The eponymous iRobot company has partnered with John Deere to produce evaluation quantities of the somewhat autonomous R-Gator, … “a versatile and rugged platform capable of taking on a wide variety of critical unmanned missions, such as a perimeter guard, unmanned scout, point man and more.”

I wouldn’t call this a radical robotic breakthrough, although given its 1,450 pounds, it could break through quite a few things. However, it and its battlefield-and-hazardous-condition brethren will only get smarter and more agile as we learn to teach our machines how to learn, and as we continue to develop artificial muscles that might replace more complex traditional gears and motors.

Perhaps even more interesting, might be the growing number of household and “toy” robotic devices that increasingly inhabit our households and our kids’ rooms. Using other iRobot robots as examples (I have no relationship with the company), for a couple of years the carpets in my home have been receiving the tender ministrations of my Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner; it finds its own way around, yet it’s polite enough to move a different way when my dog refuses to give up his spot. It also finds its way home to its charger when necessary to prepare for its next night’s mission. Similarly, iRobot offers other household robots that scour floors, clean gutters and pools, mow lawns and provide mobile platforms to patrol your (or grandma’s) house.

Yes, these are all rather crude, nonetheless useful today, but I think that their greatest contribution to the future of automation lies in their promoting general robotic acceptance inside our front doors.

Power to the People

Speaking of robots, that’s what I feel like when I’m sitting in the middle of a traffic jam. Go five feet. Stop. Wash, rinse, repeat. There must be a better way.

Of course, there is. Several GPS systems will happily tie in to central traffic monitoring systems and offer you proactive routes around traffic blockages. The trouble is, as more drivers rely on the same guidance to break the logjam, the surface streets that are getting the rerouted traffic clog up themselves. Fast. And the “gotcha” is that most traffic monitoring systems only have sensors on the major roads, and so will never know when the rerouted routes become worse than the original―and if you don’t happen to be driving in or near a major city, there’s likely to be no traffic monitoring at all. But there are still plenty of traffic jams. There must be a better way.

Of course, there is. Dash Express is bringing one answer to a dashboard near us. Doing all the things typical of a dashboard GPS, Dash Express’ special trick is that each one is an Internet device through the graces of the cellular data network or any handy unlocked WiFi access point. It keeps a central server apprised of its real-time situation, and that server integrates all the information from each Dash Express user, repaying them with a constantly updated picture of real-time traffic―off the main artery or away from a metropolitan area’s traffic monitoring.

There is that omnipresent ‘chicken and egg’ issue for this and any other similar network―you need a sufficient density of devices in any given area to garner meaningful data. But it’s a good idea that will surely spread.

I just hope that as the other GPS companies begin to adopt this idea (and they will), they’ll recognize the value of a single multi-vendor, peer-to-peer traffic network rather than each brand residing in its own walled garden. (Remember what happened to AOL when it was a walled garden?)

Life’s New Erector Set

Speaking of networks, with a little bit of a stretch, we might consider all of the cells in our body as a mesh network in their own right, communicating with each other while being created and instructed by the programming of their DNA. That’s the premise of a new partition of the biological sciences called Synthetic Biology. The lines that define this new area are still fuzzy as scientists begin to explore the domain, but the goal, both fascinating and scary at the same time, is to “…make life from scratch.” Just as we engineer purpose-built machines out of sheet metal, plastic, gears and such, synthetic biologists have a goal of purpose-building living (cellular, and perhaps eventually more complex) things.

Synthetic biology has a lot in common with nanotechnology.Both genres are learning to work at the root levels of nature, and both have the potential for enormous good and enormous not-so-good. That’s always been the way of things. Yet we’d best be especially careful in these domains, because a toaster run amok would be one thing, while rogue nanoassemblers or unintentionally created life forms could change virtually everything…

The Home’s New Erector Set

You know it will have to happen. We’ve already got nano-things, such as certain sunscreen lotions, in our homes and nano-based accelerometers in our cars. The best inkjet printers spew drops of ink that are headed down to the nanoscale. In a similar manner, I suspect that the day isn’t too far ahead when today’s commercial solid prototyping machines might become inexpensive enough to sit next to a home inkjet printer, and in the same manner, download programs from the Internet to “print” selected solid household goods for us and later, perhaps, to even “print” active consumer electronics devices.

Delivering “manufactured products” over the Internet as digital “bits” rather than as atoms―Priceless.

Literally―considering the lessons learned from the first industry whose products turned from atoms into bits (CDs)… don’t blink!

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