Robot pictures

When I was in grad school, I spent a lot of time in an aerospace robotics lab. People were doing research on things like robotic astronauts that juggle satellites and arm wrestle in space. Actually, they were pretty primitive things back then, and it was all we could do to keep them from damaging themselves and anything or anyone nearby. The motors were powerful, and if the software failed for some reason, you could very quickly have a big heavy robot arm whipping around like the bottom of a blender. That’s why there was a tape outline of just how far each robot arm are could reach. And that’s why there was always a prominent big red button that said STOP next to every robot. And that’s why I find pictures like this terrifying.


That’s German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the right there along with Arnold and the CEO of Intel. One bad gain in the controller for that arm and WHACK! you’d have a news-making photo op there. I hope the robot was unplugged. But then again, robots have come a long way, so maybe my instincts are old-fashioned by now. The photo above was culled from this Boston Globe Big Picture photo essay on robots. Lots of fun stuff and good variety too. There’s a baby seal robot for soothing hospital patients that has a brilliant touch: you recharge it by putting a plug shaped like a pacifier into its mouth. Predictably, there’s a Japanese robotic Tyrannosaurus, but if you ask me, this is a much cheaper (and safer) way to invite a T. rex over to your museum.

Ideas, models, and design

Discussions of the relative merits of intelligent design and natural selection fill endless web pages, but it strikes me that these discussions consistently overlook the nature of design itself. Intelligent design happens all the time; we may disagree on whether God or pasta-themed deities design, but we can at least agree that humans do it.

But what is design? Or, put another way, if God is doing intelligent design, then what exactly is he doing?

What a designer does is rapidly iterate through a bunch of ideas, testing them against his experience, rejecting some and keeping others for further tuning. The precursor ideas for this process come from variations on pre-existing designs. In other words, design is a process of selection with descent and variation.

If God is a designer, then maybe he’s doing it right now with lions, lemurs, begonias, and bloggers through the subtle but decidedly unmiraculous process of natural selection. You don’t have to damage science to imagine Galapagos finch beaks as God’s thoughts unfolding. Of course, that’s a matter of taste and scarcely debatable. It doesn’t prove anything and it doesn’t “mean” anything, but it is one way to frame the problem so we can just move on.

Design is predicated on an experiential model of reality. The intelligent design that humans do differs from the “design” that happens in natural selection primarily by the rate at which generational culling happens. Humans have the benefit of rapidly simulating how a design will perform without needing to build it first. Increasingly we will give this skill to our synthetic descendants. Here’s a beautiful example of how modeling operates at the boundary of action and thought.

The Cornell Computational Synthesis Lab: Robotics Self Modeling

Be sure and watch the video of the damaged robot struggling to walk. Depending on your outlook, it’s either very disturbing or spine-tinglingly beautiful. Either way, I promise you it’s a bona fide glimpse of the future.