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Robot Insects
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Your Preferences - Preliminary Results
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This is a lie, she said.
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MSPaint is mightier than the Sword
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The Art of Indecision
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The Skeptical Checklist 1.0
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Of Chimps, Children and Post-Grads...
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My very own Natural Disaster
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Porn: A force of Mutual Benefits
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Why you should care...
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What Your Voice Says About You
Tuesday, November 30, 2010

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A man and his words.
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Little kids, little minds...
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Smoking (maybemightcould) is Good.
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How to stop the Apocalpyse
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Psycasm

Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The other day the institution I study at was lucky enough to have Dr. Justin Werfel, a robotics researcher at Harvard (at the Wyss Institute), give a talk on a couple of his current projects. 

It was mainly aimed at the engineering/robotics faculties, but a few of us Psych people heard about it and decided to attend. 

I can do no justice to his work here, so I will attempt to provide as many links and videos as possible, and outline only that which I am most sure about. In any event, the videos should be enough to fill to spark your imagination. 

Social insects - like Bees, Ants and Termites - are able to engage in surprisingly complex and apparently sophisticated behaviours despite lacking a lot of faculties many 'higher order' organisms have. The fact that termites, for instance, can each act autonomously and with very little direct information from other termites within a mound, construct huge self-regulating mounds is quite amazing. The design of some of these mounds has been shown to be such that its actually regulates temperature and air-flow.

 

A mound that is approximately two metric utes+a kid tall. Source at bottom of post.

A termite mound roughly two metric 'utes+a kid' tall. Source at bottom of post.

Bees are the same. Despite being relatively simple animals, relying a number of simple visual processing systems, they can - collectively - map out large areas of terrain accurately, communicate position taking into account the position of the sun, and determine the degree of accuracy of the information in a dance. 

 

 

 Now it's interesting to consider how they can do all these things. But this was not the focus of the talk. Werfel works in robotics and his goal was to model what these animals do to achieve a certain goal. Understanding (though important) was not the primary objective. In his own words Robobees are essentially being developed to address the concern of Colony Collapse Disorder. Should it happen that the biologists can't save the bees from this disorder it is imperative to ensure that pollination of agricultural crops can still occur. The goal, as it was explained in the talk, was to create a robot that can do this should such an event come to pass. There's not so many good videos of the Robobees  but this should give you an idea of what they look like, and how they're progressing.

 

 

 Personally I found the termite project far more interesting (known as 'Termes'). The argument made for this project is that construction is an industry untouched by industrialization. We still need men in plastic hats climbing steel pillars and bolting stuff together. People die doing this. The ultimate goal is to have little machines do all the dirty work for you - you just plug in the details of what you want produced and the little robots go ahead and make it. Naturally, on a big enough project, all possible errors that can happen will happen. So they've tried to make each little Termes robot self-correcting for the small stuff, with a bunch of very simple and elegant algorithms to deal with most/all situations. You can see in the video that the little guy occasionally struggles with loading or unloading, turning or climbing, but it ultimately can self-correct as it goes along. Note also the really cool wheel design ('Whegs'). 


 

 Given the scope of the talk and the fact that it was a little outside my area of knowledge (a little?) I can't say much more. I just want everyone to know how cool these things are - and that the apocalypse will not be at the hands of terminators, but more likely the hive-mind of swarm robotics.

Even though 'Big Dog' is one scary motherfucker...

 

 

 

 

Source: Termite Image http://www.familyfriendlyozcamping.com.au/2009/10/30/travelling-eastern-central-australia-itinerary-and-4wd-adventure-part-two/

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Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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I'm probably going to have nightmares about bigdog...  Great stuff!

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