Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Back to School

Next week, my kids and I begin a new school year. Fifth grade for my son and Seventh grade for my daughter. I will be back doing morning chapel services, teaching middle school religion and heading up the robotics club again.

Here is a video about a new student at Carnegie Mellon University - home of one the country's best robotics' departments. For more information about CMU's robotics, see here.

Note - Cognitive Learner is actually a short film made in the Art, Animation, and Technology class at Carnegie Mellon University. That means that this is just clever animation and not a real robot.

A Sheet of Stamps

Everybody who has ever seen a program about how the U.S. Treasury prints sheet of bills knows how impressive a sheet of uncut bills looks. I had a similar experience this summer when I travelled to Parallax in Rocklin, California. There, on one of the tables, was a uncut sheet of fully assembled BASIC Stamps.

Across the room, I got to see the cutter, where they are cut by hand to ensure a very high finish on the edges. I'd love to have an uncut sheet of bills, but more than that, I'd like to have a beautiful uncut sheet of BASIC Stamps!

Photo - Picture of a sheet of BASIC Stamps from the August issue of The Parallaxian (top) and a picture of a sheet of $20 bills from Life Magazine (bottom).

The First Church of Robotics

My friend Stacey e-mailed me the following from The New York Times:

August 09, 2010

Op-Ed Contributor: The First Church of Robotics

The concept of artificial intelligence clouds our view of the world.
Stacey said in the e-mail, "don't have time to read this but Church and Robotics are your subject!" It was very interesting and got me thinking.
Jaron Lanier is the author of You are Not a Gadget. He lives in Berkeley, California and his homepage is here. Lanier is and innovator and technologist himself, but is also a harsh critic. In the Op-Ed piece, he asserts that, at times, those working in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence approach their work with a religious zeal that encourages the belief that our machines can can become like us - or more than us - or replace us. Lanier believes that this also leads us to think of ourselves in less human terms and more like the machines we build. This degrades our uniqueness as human beings. We should not confuse what is human with what machines can do. Lanier believes that this way of thinking is a new sort of religion or belief system.
The article expresses a fear of technology or rather a fear of the way we think of our technology, that is different from the standard - Robots are going to take over the world! - motif. It did get me thinking about something that I noticed on our summer vacation though and until his article, I never thought of myself as working for competing camps!
So, I decided to write him. I explained that I was a priest and roboticist. Here is a portion the an e-mail I sent to Lanier:
 I recently felt the tension expressed in your article though while on our family vacation this summer. We traveled from Louisiana to California so that I could officiate at the wedding of a former youth group member. On our return trip, we took our children to Disneyland. In Tomorrowland, there was an Honda ASIMO demonstration presentation. ASIMO brought in the paper, played with the kids, helped out around the house and so forth. I remember feeling frustrated by the presentation. I knew ASIMO could not do those things in reality. I also knew that so much of what ASIMO really can do was not presented. The amazing technology of the real robot was not shown, and instead a vision of a C-3PO like helper was demonstrated. Your article wrestles with these issues and points toward some of what I was feeling.

I hope that religion and technology are not competing fields, but can be partners. But as you point out, we must first be honest about what is actually possible and the limitations and areas of expertise of each field.

I do understand though a generation of technologists and engineers who long for a robotic companion and workmate. The vision that they (we?) saw in Star Wars as children may spur them to get us closer to that reality some day. Our love of such machines, like our love of cars, says more about who we as human beings are than about the machines themselves.
He will probably think I am a goof-ball. His article and these ideas are definitely some things to think about! Maybe doing so will make us better human beings and better roboticists.

Photo - Lanier from his homepage.

Update - I just got a reply from Jaron Lanier. It said:

thanks much and good luck to you in all your roles- jaron

Monday, August 9, 2010

Lab Expansion and Reoganiztion

For those of you who follow Robotics Under the Stole, you will remember when I first made my lab. See here. Then I expanded it a bit - see here. It is great to have a dedicated space to work.

Well, I've been at it again this summer! I expanded and reorganized my lab. These photos show the changes. If you look closely, you can see that I added some plywood on my table top to provide a better surface on which to solder. I also reoriented my bookshelves (to the rear above my glass dood storage cabinets) and gained some more space for books.

Now, if I can only keep the junk from piling up!

Photos - Show the work side (top) and the storage side (bottom).

Another Reason I Love Parallax Products - Open Source

The majority of the products created at Parallax include design files that are distributed, free of cost, from their web page. Parallax encourages others to freely use and modify the circuits that they have designed and to integrate them into their own projects, whether for personal or commercial use. Parallax resources for schematics, books, and code examples are fantastic! It is all free to download from their website.

Parallax has been releasing code for the Propeller under the MIT license, and all code posted on the Propeller Object Exchange, whether originating from Parallax or a third party, is required to be released under the MIT license. (See http://obex.parallax.com/license/) The MIT license explicitly allows redistribution of software, but it does not apply to hardware designs. This is one of the things that make the Propeller Chip so much fun to use. Many objects are available at the Object Exchage. This means that someone has written a piece of code to do a particular think - like operate and read a Ping))) sensor. You can add their code to your code through the MIT license.

To encourage the reuse of their designs, especially in open-source hardware projects, Parallax will begin to release design files, whenever possible, under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license. (See: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/) This will allow anyone to use, modify, and distribute the designs without explicitly receiving permission from Parallax. Now, the same great sharing that has happened with code will happen with hardware too.

Parallax supports its users like no one else.

Note: This information is taken from the Parallax website.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Another California Souvenir

Another surprise on my trip to California was Fry's Electronics. I had heard lots of people talk about Fry's on the Parallax Forums, but I had never actually been to Fry's.

It has all things electronic - video games, t.v.s, etc. But the best and most amazing part to me was the true electronics' section. They had many Parallax products (and other robot kits), an almost endless couple of isles of electronic components, dozens of multimeters, oscilloscopes, function generators and more. It was all right there to look at, hold and study. For someone who has gotten almost everything I have from catalogs or websites, it was truly amazing! I saw many things that I had only seen in pictures or read about. I could have stayed for hours, but I was with my family and friends and it was near closing time.

Not to be denied a souvenir of some sort, I found the perfect thing - a Fry's Pocket Protector! Not only is a pocket protector the symbol of nerds everywhere, the Fry's version features "Charlie the Chip" and was only $1.99!

I guess it is lucky that I don't have one of these stores too close! I could have spent LOTS of money at this place. It was also early in the trip and I still had my trip to Parallax ahead of me - so I didn't buy anything else.

The good news is that if I really get the urge to go shopping, there is a Fry's in Dallas!

Photos - My Fry's Pocket Protector "installed" and a couple of other nerds.