Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Teaching the Machine: Part IV

What role might the mobile components of the Machine play in the not-too-distant future? Robotic technologies have long played significant roles in manufacturing, and in recent years, have worked their way into classrooms around the world. Having had the good fortune to coordinate Robotics Challenge events for hundreds of students over the past few years, I can attest to the reliance of these machines on much more than their sensors. Designers and programmers play vital roles in bringing robotic machines to life.

I've seen teams of students collaboratively design, build, and program robots that: 1] sort recycled materials; 2] play hockey; 3] climb scaffolding; 4] golf; 5] participate in chariot races; 6] blow out candles; 7] sumo wrestle; 8] repair mockups of the international space station, and more. While each of these achievements is remarkable, it is the ingenious minds of students that are most responsible for the success of the autonomous machines.

In an interesting coincidence, Nova is replaying the DARPA Grand Challenge where full-sized vehicles travel without benefit of driver, across the Mojave Desert. I first read about this event in Wired magazine back in 2004 when none of the competitors were up to the challenge, and though I found it curious that it was in initiative of military minds, the engineering puzzle was compelling.

To win the 2 million dollar grand prize, a programmed vehicle would have to autonomously complete a complex, circuitous, 132 mile course. The challenge would be met in a vehicle that had the requisite speed, agility and endurance; but more importantly, would be supported by the logic, programming and last minute scrambling of human team members. In 2006,Stanley, a product of Stanford University, became the first to successfully cover the DARPA course.

Whether the result will be used for warfare, or to drive a non-driver to the grocery story, this technology may well give legs (wheels?) to the constantly learning, networked global machine. There is little doubt that the Machine already knows it has such robotic ability, as the news feeds, Flickr images, and blog posts have been telling the story for a few years now!

Photo Credits: David Arango; John Gale