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
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