Five Ways Machines Could Fix Themselves

As I see cooling fans die and chips fry… as I see half the machines in a laundry room decay into despondent malfunctioning relics… as my car invents new threats every day along the theme of catastrophic failure, and as I hear the horrific clunk of a “smart” phone diving into the sidewalk with a wonderful chance of breakage, I wonder why we put up with it.  And why can’t this junk fix itself?

Design guru and psychologist Donald A. Norman has pointed out how most modern machines hide their internal workings from users.  Any natural indicators, such as mechanical sounds, and certainly the view of mechanical parts, are muffled and covered.  As much machinery as possible has been replaced by electronics that are silent except for the sound of fans whirring.  And electronics are even more mysterious to most users than mechanical systems.

Our interfaces with machines are primarily composed of various kinds of transducers (like buttons), LEDs (those little glowing lights), and display screens.  We are, at the very least, one — if not a dozen — degrees removed from the implementation model.  As someone who listens to user feedback, I can assure you that a user’s imagining of how a system works is often radically different than how it really works.

Yet with all this hiding away of the dirty reality of machinery, we have not had a proportional increase in machine self-support.

Argument: Software, in some cases, does fix itself.  Specifically, I am thinking about automatic or pushed software updates.  And, because that software runs on a box, it is also fixing a machine.  For instance, console game platforms like XBox 360 and Playstation 3 receive numerous updates for bug fixes, enhancements, and game specific updates.  Likewise, with some manual effort from the user, smart phones and even cars can have their firmware updated to get bug fixes and new features (or third-party hacks).

Counterargument: Most machines don’t update their software anywhere close to “automatically.”  And none of those software updates actually fix physical problems.  Software updates also require a minimal subset of the system to be operational, which isn’t always the case.  The famous Red Ring of Death on the early XBox 360 units could not be fixed except via replacement of hardware.  You might be able to flash your car’s engine control unit with new software, but that won’t fix mechanical parts that are already broken.  And so on.

Another argument: Many programs and machines can “fail gracefully.”  This phrase comforts a user like the phrase “controlled descent into the terrain” comforts the passenger of an airplane.  However, it’s certainly the minimum bar that our contraptions should aim for.  For example, if the software fails in your car, it should not default to maximum throttle, and preferably it would be able to limp to the nearest garage just in case your cell phone is dead.  Another example: I expect my laptop to warn me, and then shutdown, if the internal temperature is too hot, as opposed to igniting the battery into a fireball.

The extreme solution to our modern mechatronic woes is to turn everything into software.  If we made our machines out of programmable matter or nanobots that might be possible.  Or we could all move into virtual realities, in which we have hooks for the meta — so a software update would actually update the code and data used to generate the representation of a machine (or any object) in our virtual world.

However, even if those technologies become mature, there won’t necessarily be one that is a monopoly or ubiquitous.  A solution that is closer and could be integrated into current culture would be a drop-in replacement that utilizes existing infrastructures.

Some ideas that come close:

1. The device fixes itself without any external help. This has the shortcoming that it might be too broken to fix itself — or it might not realize it’s broken.  In some cases, we already have this in the form of redundant systems as used in aircraft, the Segway, etc.

2. Software updating (via the Internet) combined with 3D printing machines. The 3D printers would produce replacement parts.  The printer, of course, needs raw material but that could be as easy as putting paper in a printer.  Perhaps, in the future, that raw printer material will become some kind of basic utility, like water and Internet access.

3. Telepresence combined with built-in repair arms (aka “waldoes”). Many companies are currently trying to productize office-compatible telepresence robots.  Doctors already use teleoperated robots like Da Vinci to do remote, minimally-invasive surgery.  Why not operate on machines?  How to embed this system into a room and/or within a machine is another — quite major — problem.  Fortunately, with the miniaturization of electronics, there might be room for new repair devices embedded in some products.  And certainly not all products need general purpose manipulator arms.  They could be machine specific devices, designed to repair the highest probability failures.

4. Autonomous telepresence combined with built-in repair arms. A remote server connects to the local machine via the Internet using the built-in repair arms or device-specific repair mechanism.  However, we also might need an automatic meta-repair mechanism.  In other words, the fixer itself might break, or the remote server might crash.  Now we enter endless recursions.  However, this need not go on infinitely.  It’s just a matter of having enough self-repair capacity to achieve some threshold of reliability.

5. Nothing is ever repaired, just installed. A FedEx robot appears within fifteen minutes with a replacement device and for an extra fee will set it up for you.

See Also

A New Twist in Nanofabrication Technology Meets the “Printing” Revolution

Manufacture It Yourself


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