May 112009
 

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Droids in a Car

 

“Aaaaahhh! Welcome to Watto’s shop, eh? Take a look around. I’ve got everything you need, eh? He-he-he-he-he!”

“Oooh! You wanna buy pit droids eh? The’ help you fix your podracer, you know.”

“You not find a better deal anywhere, I think. Eh?”

Never buy a used droid from a greedy Toydarian (particularly one who is such a blatant Middle Eastern stereotype). Watto, the hook-nosed merchant insect from George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel The Phantom Menace, deals in junk. His young slave, the engineering prodigy Anakin Skywalker – you know him in later episodes as the arch villain Darth Vader – constructs the protocol droid C3PO from the wealth of surplus equipment and spare parts in Watto’s junkyard.

George Lucas’ vision may not be that far off. These days robot-loving Japanese are tinkering with screwdrivers and motors instead of heading to the beach or hot springs during the holidays. Tokyo’s major store devoted to robots, Vstone Robot Center in the bustling Akihabara electronics district, sells robots of all sizes and shapes, including the tiny scuttling Robo-Q from Tomy Co. and the Pleo animatronic dinosaur toy from Ugobe Inc. of the U.S.

DroidsSeveral web sites today specialize in used robots and robotic parts, advertising “late model low hour equipment.” These are mainly leftover industrial robots – by companies such as Motoman, Fanuc, Panasonic, and OTC Daihen – used in manufacturing goods such as automobiles. Like their human counterparts, these droids find themselves laid off.

You can find a wealth of robot kits and parts on the Internet, as well as pre-assembled robots including a working model of C3PO’s famous companion R2-D2. Hasbro’s Industrial Automation claims to be “One of the largest droid manufacturing corporations in the galaxy.” It offers models of “the popular MD-series of medical droids and the R-series of astromech droids.”

George Lucas’ R2-D2 is introduced in the Star Wars prequel as a droid belonging to the Royal House of Naboo and the Royal Naboo Starfighter Corps. R2-D2’s characteristic chirp – and ability to repair or infiltrate any starship episode-after-episode – endears him to Star Wars fans. Hasbro’s R2-D2 is starting to look more and more like its movie namesake:

  • DroidsSonar Navigational System
  • Rotating Dome
  • Illuminating Light Beam
  • Adaptable Droid Mood Status Indicator
  • Sound Processing Microphones
  • Voice Recognition Response Module
  • Utility Arm Beverage Holder
  • Motorized Indoor Terrain Treads.

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If you want something a bit more practical, in addition to their widely known cleaning robots like the Roomba Vacuum Cleaning Robot, iRobot offers the Scooba Floor Washing Robot, and a very primitive early version of a C3PO-like “virtual visiting” communication robot that connects to the Internet and roams around your house visiting whomever you want while you’re traveling on business. You can buy these robots from Amazon or Best Buy.

Carl’s Electronics, the Fast Eddies of robot kits, is a web-based robotics storehouse. Robotics kits for beginners range from Solar Hopping Frogs, Mini Spiders, and alien-like Hydrazoids to programmables such as Robotic Arms, LEGO MINDSTORMS, combat platforms, and Bioloid humanoid robots. The kits range from the simple to the complex.

  • Solar Hopping Frogs – When this little guy sees the sun or bright light he jumps for joy using his hind legs and rubber feet. This mini solar powered robot kit is fun to build and play with. Demonstrates how the sun can provide alternative power to a DC motor – no batteries required!
  • Mini Spiders – An eight-legged solar patroller! This sun-powered arachnid has a great "crab-like" walking motion. Demonstrates the principles of solar power in a fun and easy-to-understand way.
  • Hydrazoids – The HYDRAZOID robot kit will react to sound impulses such as clapping of hands and move forward for 15 seconds and then stop to await another sound command. LEDs and illuminated fiber optic antennas give the Hydrazoid a cool alien appearance.
  • Robotic Arm – The ROBOTIC ARM TRAINER teaches the basic robotic sensing and locomotion principles, testing your motor skills, as you build and control the Arm. You can command this unit with its five-switch wired controller with corresponding lights to grab, release, lift, lower, rotate wrist and pilot sideways 350 degrees.
  • Bioloid – The Bioloid Multi-bot is the first robot of its kind to be built around serially controlled servo technology. This allows the user to construct a wide variety of robot configurations, including the autonomous exploration robot, quadruped puppy robot, hexapod spider robot, dinosaur robot and bi-pedal humanoid – all with one controller board.

LEGO MINDSTORMS is in a class all by itself. MINDSTORMS originated from the programmable LEGO sensor blocks used for educational toys. LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT – the next generation – is a programmable robotics kit released by Lego in July 2006. The kit includes 519 LEGO pieces, three servo motors, four sensors (ultrasonic, sound, touch, and light), seven wires, a USB cable, a USB Bluetooth dongle, and the programmable NXT computer brick.

To program the NXT brick, you use the LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT Software. This development engine is powered by NI LabVIEW, “intuitive graphical programming software used by scientists and engineers worldwide to design, control and test consumer products and systems such as MP3 and DVD players, cell phones, and vehicle air bag safety systems.” Applications include controllers used in NASA Mars Pathfinder exploration as well as Microsoft Xbox testing.

Droid FaceBuilding LEGO droids is now a sport. The FIRST LEGO League (FLL) is a robotics tournament for children ages 9-14 that combines “hands-on, minds-on challenges with a sports-like atmosphere using the LEGO MINDSTORMS Technology.” Participants learn that “friendly competition and mutual gain are not separate goals”, and that “helping one another is the foundation of teamwork.”

FFL participants are likely candidates to participate in MIT robot competitions when they are college age – these include LEGO tournaments along with humanoid robot competitions. The students work in teams of two or three. Each team is given the same kit containing various sensors, electronic components, batteries, motors, and LEGO blocks. It’s quite entertaining to watch LEGO robots on YouTube shuffle a ball around a table and try to score points against each other.

You may not be able to piece together a droid as sophisticated as C3PO – at least, quite yet. The most sophisticated robots today are guided by narrow AI software and require highly specialized skills to manufacture. “They can now pick up and peel bananas, land jumbo jets, steer cars through city traffic, search human DNA for cancer genes, play soccer or the violin, find earthquake victims or explore craters on Mars.”

The question of whether robots will ever act and respond like humans – using artificial general intelligence or AGI – is somewhat controversial. There are those such as Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, and software entrepreneur and executive Mitch Kapor who doubt that a robot can ever successfully fool a human into thinking that it is a fellow human (the Turing Test).

Ray Kurzweil is more optimistic – he predicts that robots will match human intelligence by 2029, only 20 years from now. It will be interesting to see if competitive young teams of LEGO robot builders – using the latest AI software to program droids – contribute in making this prediction a reality.

The future may lie somewhere between the naysayers and the optimists. Intel CEO Justin Rattner predicts that it will take at least until 2050 to close the mental gap between people and machines. Maybe then you’ll be able to build human-acting droids like C3PO and R2-D2 from spare parts.

 

Droid vision

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