Sunday, January 23, 2011

One giant leap for robotics

By Steve Rensberry  

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is preparing for at least nine separate launches this year, the next being on Feb. 23 with the launch of the Orbital Sciences Taurus Rocket at Landenberg Air Force Base. On Feb. 24 it plans a launch of the Space Shuttle Discover at Kennedy Space Center after a roll out to the launch pad on Jan. 31. On April 19, Space Shuttle Endeavor is due to launch, followed by the United Launch Alliance Delta II 7320 on June 9, the Space Shuttle Atlantis on June 28, the United Launch Alliance Atlas V on Aug. 5, the ULA Delta II Heavy on Sept. 8,  the ULA Delta II on Oct. 25 and the United Launch Alliance Atlas V on Nov. 25. See: Launch schedule.
   If this alone isn't enough to grab the attention of space enthusiasts like myself, the payload surely is. These range from measuring earth's atmospheric and sea surface temperatures, to the Mars Science Laboratory Mission in November aimed at determining the planet's habitability. September's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission hopes to significantly boost to our understanding of the moon's thermal evolution, and the August Juno mission will send a solar-power spacecraft around Jupiter's poles 33 times, NASA says, in order to further analyze the planet's origins and magnetosphere.
   The first of two missions in February will collect data on the Earth's atmosphere in order to increase our understanding of the Sun's affect on climate, while the second will deliver important items to the International Space Station. The April mission also involves a delivery to the Space Station. Of the two missions in June, the first, called Aquarius, will study heat transport and storage in the ocean. Of particular interest in the study of robotics will be the inclusion on the Feb. 24 STS-133 mission of Robonaut 2.
   The acceleration in robotics research and development that has taken place over the past decade has become increasingly apparent. Some research is no doubt being conducted entirely behind closed doors, such as with the military or with corporate interests that depend on proprietary research and development to boost market share beyond that of their competitors.
   However, as a public entity NASA is significantly more open with most of its projects. In the case of Robonaut 2--a joint project of GM and NASA--its eerily realistic hand dexterity is simply astounding and a key feature of  "the first dexterous humanoid robot" to venture into space.
   "The value of a humanoid over other designs is the ability to use the same workspace and tools - not only does this improve efficiency in the types of tools, but also removes the need for specialized robotic connectors," NASA says on a site dedicated to Robonaut 2.
   In NASA's words: "Advanced technology spans the entire R2 system and includes: optimized overlapping dual arm dexterous workspace, series elastic joint technology, extended finger and thumb travel, miniaturized 6-axis load cells, redundant force sensing, ultra-high speed joint controllers, extreme neck travel, and high resolution camera and IR systems. The dexterity of R2 allows it to use the same tools that astronauts currently use and removes the need for specialized tools just for robots."  See: Robonaut 2
   NASA's promotional team surely deserves some kudos. Robonaut 2 even has his own Facebook page, Flicr account and Twitter profile. The public face of Robonaut 2 will either satiate the public's anthropomorphic thirst or scare those who remain fearful that we are fast approaching the use of real live Robocops. Needless to say, 2011 could very well be a pivotal year leading to even greater and more rapid advances in robotic science.
   Rodney Brooks, then director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Fujitsu Professor of Computer Science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote an essay published in the 2002 book The Next Fifty Years (Edited by John Brockman, Random House, Inc., New York). In that essay, entitled The Merger of Flesh and Machines, Brooks raises the question of what effect such incredible advances in science and technology will have on humanity's sense of self.
   Brooks cites Galileo's clash with the church over the earth's place in the cosmos, Charles Darwin's placement of humanity squarely within the confines of the animal kingdom, and research by Francis Crick, James D. Watson and others showing that in terms of genetics humans in fact differed little in the number of genes (sometimes having even less) than yeast, fruit flies, potatoes and many animals. And with each new generalization has come new challenges as to the way in which humanity in general views itself, shrinking our place within the realm of phenomenal reality to a far less centralized position.
   "Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, we can see signs that the next fifty years promise another such generalization. Our very humanity will feel threatened, and that may well lead to violent wars over what are essentially intellectual and religious ideas," Brooks writes. "We already see the early skirmishes in these wars, and they are not at all pretty. The generalization we are facing is that we humans are machines--and as such, subject to the same technological manipulations we routinely apply to machines."
   Brooks prediction for the coming years--in terms of contrast with earlier watershed changes--is a bold one, prompting him to urge us to "moderate our hubris" if we hope for out children to be around to enjoy it. The entirety of Brooks article, and the book it is published in, is worth the read.
   "We are breaking out of our roles as passive observers of life and the order of things to become manipulators of life and the order of things," Brooks says.
   Note: Photos are courtesy of NASA and do not imply ownership nor endorsement of the website

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