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Mark Tilden

by   -   September 15, 2013

In the past, a robotics education started with any inspiration that filtered through the sparse media of the time. Imagine a dull illness during a bland winter, black and white TV on a fuzzy channel, and then out of nowhere, mom drops a Jack Kirby ‘Fantastic Four’ comic on your sickbed.

In full color.

For those who remember, King Kirby was a genius at thick rendered, forced perspective sci-fi illustrations: spaceships, weapons, and best of all robots in immaculate detail, exciting situations, and traceable isomorphic projection.

Robotic education starts then, tracing and drawing your plans, usually in crayon.  That kind of inspiration is vital to keep the obsessiveness to face the thousands of hours needed before you have something you can be proud of (or paid for).

Following the sketches come the personal discoveries and skills needed to remove your hardware fears: Tinkertoys, Lego, Meccano, balsa airplanes, general disassembly (no alarm clock is safe!), car repair, welding shop, and (if you can afford it) servo-based RC items which give an instinctive feel for  set-point positioning and materials strength.

(Your electric screwdriver is your best learning tool, so get a good one.)

After that, a quality robotics education can be picked up pretty much anywhere, provided you’re an ADHD polyglot with a hankering for electronics, electrics, power systems, industrial and product design, acoustics, physics, statics, materials science, animation, behavioral rendering, dynamics, AI, firmware and app programming, illumination focusing and filters, sensors, vision systems, gradient optimization, interfaces and protocols, haptics … (list continues ad-infinitum as speaker fades into distance, then back up), then you’ll be fine.

But first and always …

When I occasionally get to lecture before K-through-12s with a dozen various  robots, I like to point out that: ‘Robotics isn’t one thing, it’s *everything* that makes technology cool brought together. What you’re learning in school *now* applies to how these work.’

Then I get one of my robots to burp animatedly, to emphasize the point.

Afterwards the class plays with the bots and fights over the remotes, but sometimes you get a kid who asks insightful questions, wants specific details, shows a deliberate interest, and a fascination with what now might be possible.  Something he never thought accessible before.

Inspiration delivered?

One in a thousand.

Good luck kid.

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‘Bean-counting’ is a dull but necessary component of every grant proposal; it helps to keep our plans realistic, doable and accountable. But what if we weren’t tied to grants and budgets? Would it change the way we approach our work?

This month we asked the Robotics by Invitation panel to tell us what kind of research they would undertake if money weren’t an obstacle. Here’s what Mark Tilden and Illah Nourbakhsh have to say …

 

Illah Nourbakhsh

Illah Nourbaksh on “What would you research if you did not have to worry about grants?”

 Community empowerment through massive robotic sensing. There is no question we live in a world that is changing. Pollutants are changing the dynamics of the air we breathe, the water we drink and even the soil on which we live. Yet the power to measure pollution …

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Mark-Tilden

Mark Tilden on “What would you research if you did not have to worry about grants?”

 Well, I’m lucky enough to be a gentleman scientist, so I concurrently study problems on minimal dynamical control systems (optimizing performance to silicon ratios), power regeneration and efficiency, alien robot morphologies …

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by   -   June 17, 2013

Well, I’m lucky enough to be a gentleman scientist, so I concurrently study problems on minimal dynamical control systems (optimizing performance to silicon ratios), power regeneration and efficiency, alien robot morphologies (weird bodies outside the conventional biomimetic), sensor design, situational awareness and integration, motor and mechanical operational extension, locomotion and loading, and anything else that allows for useful, clean, interesting, semi-perpetual automatons.

Y’know, the basics.  Bringing good things to life.  Moo Ha ha.

So robotics research is excellent for those with ADHD – the field’s problem and feature is it’s not just anything, it’s everything that’s techno fun. However every now and again there’s something that skitters, flops, pronks, spins, walks, tumbles, or bounces across the desk that could really use … a brain.

So the short answer is I’d put (other people’s) money into researching affordable competent minds that could help organize any mechanical body, sensor or environment they are given.  Small, quick, cheap, and with a voice interface so I can encourage it to effectiveness without a million keystrokes.  Power on and it asks “Hello, what is my name?”

Yes, that’d be handy.  Do they have an App for that yet?

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by   -   May 15, 2013

From experience, the single biggest obstacle to personal robotic markets is cost, both in money and time. Robots have the disadvantage of being over-promoted in fictional media while over-priced on the shelves. Sci-fi is fine to inspire if builders feel the money-time is justified, but the number of half-finished robots internationally greatly outnumber those completed, more’s the pity.

Frustration is compounded when the budding obsessive-compulsive hits what I call the ‘complexity barrier’, where for a linear increase in device competence, an exponential increase in money-time is required.  This often leads to a condition I call FIBA (for “F&@k It, Build Another”) where enthusiasm fades as prototypes fall further into dusty closets.

The problem with FIBA is that the evolutionary discoveries and skills from completing the mechanoid never resolve.  Also, unlike failed code, film, books, or other virtual projects, the half-finished device will be too expensive to throw away and will likely to haunt the builders ambitions for years (dammit!).

It doesn’t inspire, especially when Hollywood (and nature) makes it seem so easy.  There has to be a way to reduce all the factors so that robots can be put together at a price appropriate not just to encourage robo-evolution, but also allow users to put them at risk.  Right now conventional personal robots are precious things subject to de-acceleration trauma, but the best discoveries I’ve had have not been from artificial life, but artificial danger.  We can simulate a robot, but not the real-world it lives in, and how it deals with those problems provide vital clues for subsequent generations (robots and builders alike).  We have to get them cheap enough so they can make mistakes, or they/we will never learn … the vital step to proctoring these creatures into reality.

It’s a forced evolution, and sometimes painful/funny to watch, but if you’ve got a dozen of these dumbos in the lab, let’s see what the dog thinks of one.

Speaking of, anyone know how to get fang marks out of aluminum?

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It has been said that we are on the edge of a ‘robotic tipping point’ … but where, exactly, is this edge? And what’s holding us back?  This month we asked our panelists to weigh in on what’s keeping robots from going mainstream. Here’s what they have to say …

Gerkey Brian Brian Gerkey on “What is the single biggest obstacle preventing robotics from going mainstream?”

The biggest obstacle to broader adoption of robotics is that only experienced roboticists can develop robotics applications. To make a robot reliably and robustly do something useful, you need a deep understanding of a broad variety of topics, from state estimation to perception to path planning …

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Mark Tilden Mark Tilden on “What is the single biggest obstacle preventing robotics from going mainstream?”

From experience, the single biggest obstacle to personal robotic markets is cost, both in money and time. Robots have the disadvantage of being over-promoted in fictional media while over-priced on the shelves. Sci-fi is fine to inspire if builders feel the money-time is justified, but …

Read more →

 

Alan-Winfield Alan Winfield on “What is the single biggest obstacle preventing robotics from going mainstream?”

Well it depends on what you mean by mainstream. For a number of  major industry sectors robotics is already mainstream. In assembly-line automation, for instance; or undersea oil well maintenance and inspection …

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by   -   April 15, 2013

To coincide with Robohub’s Jobs Focus, we asked our panelists to weigh in on the role that robots play in the wider economy, and whether this is a good thing or a bad thing for employment numbers. Here’s what they have to say:

John-Dulchinos
John Dulchinos feature article: “The great equalizer: How robotics frees manufacturers from consolidating in low-wage nations”

These days it is hard to read an article about the future of robots that does not include a reference to jobs. As a pure roboticist, I object to the constant connection between the two, but as a concerned citizen I think it is a worthwhile discussion …

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Raffaello-DAndrea.jpg
Raffaello D’Andrea on “Do robots kill jobs?”

There is no doubt that robots, and automation in general, replace humans in the work-force: all productivity-enhancing tools, by definition, result in a decrease in the number of man-hours required to perform a given task …

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Mark Tilden

Mark Tilden on “Do robots kill jobs?”

Robots do kill jobs but they’re crappy jobs, so good riddance.  If you’ve ever had a job you were desperate for the money, but immediately regretted after you got it, then you know what I mean. …

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We hope you will join the discussion. Feel free to post your comment below.

See all the posts in Robohub’s Jobs Focus →

by   -   April 14, 2013

Robots do kill jobs but they’re crappy jobs, so good riddance.  If you’ve ever had a job you were desperate for the money, but immediately regretted after you got it, then you know what I mean.

This Robotics By Invitation contribution is part of Robohub’s Jobs Focus.

The anxiety occurs when robots have anthropomorphic similarities that people wrongly associate with human ambition.  When a (semi) humanoid takes away the whole menial job that used to be done by a person, there’s an instinctive focus to blame the machine, not the corporation optimizing its bottom line.  Optimizing tasks to reduce costs is a good thing.  It’s just a shame we haven’t kept up with the social reforms needed so people who had those jobs before could find better jobs now.

So the short answer is robot-brained corporations kill jobs.  Robots are just the anthropomorphic patsies that get blamed.

Still, now I have to go and stare worriedly at my toaster.

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See all the posts in Robohub’s Jobs Focus →

by   -   March 13, 2013

Robot machines have been shaping the future of war since the first siege engines appeared in ancient times (I like to think the Trojan Horse was motorized).  Now with technology significantly extending our military reach and impact, small surgical-strike war is becoming more assured, though not — I’m glad to say — cheaper.  Humans are still the best cost-to-benefit weapons for the battlefield and will be so for quite a while.  That offers hope as the personal risks, regardless of ideology, become universally recognized as too damn high.

What also assures me comes from my years of robot gaming: when you have battles between autonomous robots, people just don’t care, as there are no human egos bolstered or defeated by the outcome.  Machines beating on machines has no emotional connection for us, which is where the ceiling of robot-soldier tolerance might stall.

What will be horrific is the first time a humanoid soldier machine is broadcast hurting or killing humans in a war setting.  When I worked in vision technology, we were asked how would a machine tell the difference between a group of soldiers and a pack of boy scouts from a distance?  It couldn’t, which is why human judgement is still the means by which a trigger is pulled.  Even still, when that video broadcasts, everyone in the world will know our place as the dominant species has just become … less so.

But the question comes down to who gets blamed when a robot commits an atrocity?  Without human frailty to take blame on site, is it the remote pilots, the generals, the politicians?  Sadly the precedent for blame-free robot conflict is being settled by beltway-lawyers now.  A new cold war where you’ll be able to legally and blamelessly use a killer-drone App, though you’ll still go to jail for downloading a movie.

Because that’d be immoral.

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by   -   January 31, 2013

Funding schemes aren’t viable until we can make more innovative roboticists, and over the years I’ve tried several methods of engendering the Divine Frankenstein Complex in others. Teaching at a university had some merit but little flexibility. Starting international robot competitions brings in exposure but promotes more involvement than innovation. Scientific publications vanish into the ether (though books fare better). Movies, TV shows, and toys are never treated seriously though they spread memes universally. Even being a government research program manager (dispensing millions of $) is a slow bath in futility against IP lawyers and rigid corporate policy.

The most successful (and enjoyable) funding scheme I ever took part in was through a science outreach organization that distributed ‘Angel Cards’. We would actively seek out people who were frustrated but brilliant and give them a $10,000 US a month Visa card to spend on their research “hobby”. No other paperwork. At the end of 6 months we’d assess what they’d done and up their card to $20,000/month if good, or we’d just cancel the card, thank them, and walk away.

26% turned out something amazing, and not always in robotics, but that was fine. It was an excellent integrity test proctoring scientific conviction, but it’s exhausting for the managers, which is why we had to recruit successful candidates to take our place when we moved on. Regrettably the program stopped a decade ago, but for a while there it was like Santa Claus for innovation – an option to explore exotic, tangental paths without consequence, and I’m glad to see many of our docents have diversified profitably.

Money well spent. Always hoped someone else would take it up, and it seems a form of it has with the net-wide Kickstarter trend now raging. Rather than indenture a researcher to servitude under a venture-capital scheme or the bureaucracy of government funding, pre-customers can buy into a future product on promises and universal visibility. The personal investment is small, the risk distributed, and some of the products look promising.

Though crowd sourcing lacks the ‘blue-sky’ appeal of pure research outreach, I feel the best robotic funding scheme at present is to invest in cool and visible crowd-sourced ventures.

Or you could fund my ass. A cool hundred mil otta do it. :)

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by   -   January 15, 2013

Well if it was for fun, I’d invest in autonomous paving mothers (APMs).  A self-driving solar-powered mobile furnace robot that eats sand and dirt and spits out interlocking solar-panel paving stones (whose power is fed back into the APM to help it along).  As a necessity for holding back deserts, shoring against rising seawater, providing power and roads to desperate areas, and colonizing space (we need dust-free tarmacs to live on), it could change mankind.

I also like the idea of making 100,000 solar-powered self-driving surfboards to roam all the shores of earth so there’s always something to play with when you take your kids to the beach (I’m tired of fumbling with inflatable ducks).

And if it’s for profit I’d invest in advanced life-size humanoid executives to act as the research platform for a mass inexpensive humanoid robot market.  Start them out as executive helpers (a walking I-phone that can bring you coffee), then scale to tele-robo-tourism (why not take a walking tour of Hawaii before visiting?), and shopping (your robot avatar working a market far away).

Data from this development could then be used to optimize the ultimate robot market, a $1000 soft-plasic humanoid nurse that will keep the house in order, fetch and cook food, dispense medicine, then put itself away in a closet.  An affordable option to give people the dignity to live at home comfortably through their dotage without burden.

Yes, there might be a demand.  A good investment I think.

by   -   December 15, 2012

Aside from the conventional introductory texts on BEAM Robotics, control systems, electronics, and multi-axis mechanics, I always recommend books to inspire thoughts on robotic history, possibilities, and directions.

A great history of the robotic future can be found by starting through Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot” anthologies (and the extending books “Robots of the Dawn”, “Caves of Steel”, etc). As with the Sherlock Holmes novels, Asimov’s stories are engaging, logical, quick to read, and, best of all, not bogged down by technical jargon. Written in a simpler time (starting 1930s), the “I Robot” parables revolve around the necessities of the humans involved, but as the series progressed over decades, Asimov’s machines evolve more interesting, sometimes pertinent, roles.

Stories of robot evolution are pandemic through sci-fi culture, and there are many pejorative “Frankenstein awakens and he’s pissed” sub-genres that burden the field. However there are some tales that explore why he’s pissed, and what sort of introspection it might take to calm him down (pitchforks not included). Two of my favorites along these lines are “Two Faces of Tomorrow” (1979, ISBN 978-1-59307-563-7) and “Code of the Lifemaker” (1983, ISBN 0-345-30549-3) both by James P. Hogan. Not only are these stories prophetic, but they deal with my favorite attribute of robotics, namely “Emergent Properties”, when a robot system does more than expected. A major part of the fun of research robotics — “Is it a bug, or awareness?”

There are many excellent modern mechanical missives, but one of the most brilliant details a realistic legal robot dystopia that’s free online. “The Robot and the Baby” by John McCarthy (2006) makes me glad robots are still mostly fictional and not subject to choking regulations and political tarnish. For now, the fun of building robots unfettered is secure, but this story reveals some disturbing possibilities and is my favorite cautionary tale.

And finally, I strongly recommend “Expedition — Voyage to Darwin IV” by Wayne Douglas Barlow (1990, Workman Publishing). This book is pure imagination in biology form, and fed well into my long-held bias that robots don’t have to just be copies of familiar earthly lifeforms, they could be nimble, exotic, enticing aliens. As roboticists, we can build anything, provided we’ve the inspiration, and this book is all about that.

Inspiration acquired. Now where’s my box of junk?

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interview by   -   September 21, 2012

In today’s episode we speak with Mark Tilden, about the history before WowWee‘s RoboSapien and FemiSapien and about his belief that bottom up BEAM robotics (which stands for Biology, Electronics, Aesthetics, and Mechanics) is essential in creating low cost, competent, robust and flexible robots.

interview by   -   April 23, 2010

Today we celebrate the 50th episode of ROBOTS!

For the occasion we speak with 12 scientists about the most remarkable developments in robotics over the last 50 years and their prediction for the next half-century. This 50th special is split into two episodes with the second half airing in two weeks.

Today we’ll be talking to Rolf Pfeifer on robotics in general, Mark Tilden robot toys, Hiroshi Ishiguro on androids, Oscar Schofield on underwater robots, Steve  Potter on brain machine interfaces and Chris Rogers on eduction robots. Our next episode will give you a snapshot view on nano robots, AI, flying robots, human robot interactions, robot business, and space robots.

interview by   -   December 19, 2008

In the spirit of the holiday season, today’s episode is all about robots as toys. We speak to Mark Tilden, robot designer at WowWee Robotics, about designing robots for children, and what he thinks that scientists and researchers can learn from the toy industry. We are also holding a contest to give away his latest creation, the Femisapien, to one of our listeners, so read all about it below.



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