The Robot Prism

When I start thinking about a topic in depth, it makes me see the world through that prism. It’s happened to me with games like chess and go, and I’ve been thinking a lot about robots these days, and I am seeing robots everywhere.

As I came out of Nick’s Pizza this evening with my takeout for Anna, the baby and I, I noticed how my body reacted to the steep step down. I hadn’t seen the step at first, but I didn’t quite stumble or fall. Rather, my foot noticed the terrain was uneven before I descended too much. I sort of naturally wiggled my foot, glanced down to confirm there was an unexpected steep step, and left more or less gracefully with my stack of two pizzas, two salads, two cookies, and a glass bottle of coke.

So it’s sort of amazing that a human can do this – juggle an unwieldy stack of objects, and quickly (at least compared to Darpa Robotic Challenge robots) scamper along uneven and unexpected terrain. Klutz that I am, I’ll make the best bipedal robots look like fools in a dance competition, or a running-across-arbitrary-terrain challenge.

It’s an innocuous moment – an unexpected scamper down a step, that is – but when you think about what it might take to have a robot navigate steps, it’s a fun and interesting rabbit hole. You can think about how to mimic a human and what sort of algorithms and sensors and servos that might take, or you can think that maybe it would be easier if the robot was a tank or a soccer ball.

I see robots everywhere, in my stumbles, and in my 15-month-old son Adlai’s little struggles and triumphs with the physical world. It’s such an interesting thing to explore, robotics – movement and sensing and manipulation, that we take so many years to get right as animals, but we hope to be able to synthesize and conjure up in our machines.

It doesn’t seem odd to me, somehow, to suppose that millions of robots might walk and fly and buzz and zip among us in just the next few years. In fact, I’m starting to think its certain.



Here’s a review of Nick’s Pizza too, while I’m at it.