Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 434:
LITTLE ROBOTS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 434.

Today, let us be "Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control." The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Here's a photo in Science magazine. Seven young women and twelve young men all stand behind a pile of electronic gadgetry. They seem to be having the time of their lives. They like to call themselves the "Insect Lab," but these aren't entomologists -- these are engineers.

They're part of the MIT program in design, and the insects are small robots. The general public would be surprised at the level of effort and sophistication that's gone into robots already. Robots are no longer the stuff of science fiction. They're heavily involved in American and Japanese manufacturing.

This group has created a strain of small robots that do very sophisticated things -- things like walking on their own legs. In the past, that's taken enormously complex artificial intelligence. But the MIT group is fundmentally interested in machine autonomy. So they've asked, "How much thought do you and I give to walking?" The answer, of course, is, "Hardly any!" We think about other things when we walk. Our legs simply react -- to the pavement, to subconscious suggestions from our brain, and to small obstacles.

They've built a set of very simple little bugs -- a whole taxonomy of walking machines. These robots give little thought to walking. Their legs are programed primarily to respond. One, skittering across the floor, sees a book in its way. Each leg responds, as it must, to clamber over the book.

The bugs can be given higher-order minds. The larger brain directs gross motion -- starting, stopping, and setting direction -- as well as doing a job. These robots function probabilistically, not perfectly. You might, for example turn a fleet of robot "mice" loose in your house to pick up dirt and trash. They would scurry about, getting 98 percent of the junk. That's not perfect, but it's better than I do when I clean up. The Insect Lab's motto is "Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control."

It's the "Out of Control" part that catches us by surprise. Engineers have been stereotyped as people who want to be in control of all the details. Not true! Not true at all! Good engineers know that good engineering is like good society. Technologies function best when they're not under full control. Some things must be controlled, of course, but at the right level. Both the designer and the machine itself have to be at liberty to respond to the world around them. We already know that a free people does the best job of running things. Now we're finding that's true of our machines, as well.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Waldrop, M. M., Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. Science, Vol. 248, 25 May, 1990, pp. 959-961.

The official name of the Insect Lab is:

Mobile Robot Group,
Artificial Intelligence Laboratory
545 Technology Square
MIT
Cambridge, MA 02139
The director is Rodney Brooks, Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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