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When Los Alamos Scientists Make Toys 76

redpop350 writes: "Mark Tilden of Los Alamos National Labs {I had the privilege once of waiting on him in the local hardware store} has apparently come up with a new diversion. Here's the link to the story. Cool Toys! His earlier creations bore a lot of resemblance to these, and I am sure they will be fun." We've mentioned B.I.O. Bugs before, but this is some cool background to go along with them.
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When Los Alamos Scientists Make Toys

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  • by minusthink ( 218231 ) on Sunday December 23, 2001 @09:02AM (#2743946)
    "When Los Alamos Scientists Make Toys"

    ok. Now I won't be so bashful about submitting:
    "Humans reported to breathe oxygen"
    "Cats enjoy strings"
    "x86 is the devil" :D
  • by SerpentMage ( 13390 ) <ChristianHGross@ y a h o> on Sunday December 23, 2001 @09:02AM (#2743947)
    I read the article and thought pretty cool. But and this is kind of funny. Consider the following comment.

    >Tilden has created an army of lifelike robotic bugs that use transistors, rather than computers, to control their actions.

    If I am not mistaken a computer is nothing more than a bunch of transistors put together. Hence this is not that amazing (interesting yes).

    I thought actually these bugs were the ones that were built using analog technologies. I do not know who, but there is a scientist that uses no transistors, just analog circuits.
    • Well, that's true, but I think they're getting at the component count/complexity rather than the technicality of what makes a computer.

      I think I saw a commercial for these bugs, and IIRC they would 'seek out others of their kind' and were generally portrayed as being intelligent. My first thought was that there's a computer inside. I'd like to know how he could have programmed responses like "fear of light" with a handful of discrete transistors.
      • by joebp ( 528430 ) on Sunday December 23, 2001 @09:35AM (#2743980) Homepage
        I'd like to know how he could have programmed responses like "fear of light" with a handful of discrete transistors.
        It's neither `programmed' nor a `fear'. It's a simple circuit -- call it a neural net if you like -- and its results are anthropomorphosized by Humans into `fear', etc.

        (IAABR - I am a BEAM robotist(?))

        • Give me some credit. But to be 'anthropomorphosized' as you put it, there has to be a perceivable reaction to a stimulus. For fear of light, I suppose a photodiode could turn on the 'turning' circuit or the 'reverse' circuit. I would guess that most of the smarts are probably sensors that turn on/off mechanical drive sections in the toy.
          • The 'turning circuit' does not have to be any more complicated than 'the sensor on the left triggers the effector on the left, and the sensor on the right tiggers the effector on the right'. If the light is to the right, the sensor on the right is triggered more, so the effector on the right is triggered more, and the bug turns to the left, running away from the light.

            There is an excellent book by Valentino Braitenberg called 'Vehicles - Experiements in Synthetic Psychology' that goes into all kinds of examples of simple circuits exhibiting behavior like this (behavior that we would consider somewhat intelligent if we observed it the in an animal).
        • I'm fairly certain that it works exactly like that, for lack of a more technical explanation, which I'm sure someone else will take the time to provide.
        • Hmm...

          Depends on whether you consider your own "fear" reaction to be something other than a simple "circuit" tripping in your brain... this is not perhaps "reasoned fear," but how often is fear in humans well reasoned?
      • by jeed ( 545775 ) on Sunday December 23, 2001 @10:04AM (#2744023)

        I'd like to know how he could have programmed responses like "fear of light" with a handful of discrete transistors.

        Use two light sensors (such as light dependant resistors) to measure how much light the bug is in and to help guide the bug away from the light. When one sensor reaches a certain threshold, I imagine "move away from light" circuitry takes over and guides the bug towards darker areas with the light intensity information from the two light sensors - if the right sensor is darker, move right, if the left sensor is darker, move left.

        What I'd like to know is, how they are implementing the downloadable transistor patterns. I know that reconfigurable digital logic can come in the form of Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA) so I wondered if there was such a thing as Field Programmable Transistor Arrays (FPTA). Punched it into Google and hey presto NASA has a paper [] on an FPTA that JPL has developed!

    • by Anonymous Coward
      Well, transistors are analog components.
      They are just made to work in a digital

      Ia Transistors dont only respond with
      either current or no current, ones and
      zeros in digital terms. They respond with
      either current of, or infinite levels of
      currents, (if you look att infinite scaling,
      and not at wich amp and voltage the
      transistor breaks.) Wich gives that one
      transistor can give an infinite amount
      of different responds.

      Jens (Does swedens have brains? Or are
      all blonds?)
    • by ZigMonty ( 524212 ) <slashdot@zigmont ... Nom minus author> on Sunday December 23, 2001 @10:21AM (#2744049)
      I've seen a show on this guy, or a guy doing a similar thing. They're using several to at most a few dozen transistors to do this. ICs have hundreds of thousands to millions. I think his reasoning is this: a computer is made of transistors (these days) but a single transistor or a couple of them isn't a computer. Sounds pretty reasonable to me.

      The thing that impressed me the most as I watched the show was that he could build one from a couple of old hand-held radios in about half an hour. It didn't have any kind of case on it and while it was "walking" he dropped his keys on it, shorting it's components. It promptly went into something resembeling a seiziure but when he removed the keys it went right on walking! How many computers are that durable?

      These new bugs sound a bit more sophisticated but it seems to be the same general idea.

      • Well to get the same behavior from a collection of digital components would take a a larger amount of computing power and programming.

        Where as with a simple analog computing model, balancing circuit levels allows the component level to be far less dense and the design far more efficient.This leads us to the conclusion that analog design are far more efficient, But this is natural in specialized machines of any type.

        • When the behaviour is simple combinataion of philic/trophic responses then the analog model works due to the relatively gross scale of operation (this is intended for kids). Given a small enough sampling speed, this analog behaviour can be mimicked by digital means (effectively the discretisation and solution of PDEs). The advantage of a digital model is that (if programmed correctly) is based on a Turing machine which is much much more flexible. That means you can create new inputs/responses rather than the set of prewired functions.

          Still ... he who dies with the most toys wins ....

  • Its actually quite interesting.

    Being a big kid, I personally would love to have a few of those bug things. Imagine putting your pet hamster in the hallway with a few of them. The hamster would probably end up ignoring them, but if the bugs can be programmed to follow the hamster everywhere it goes, what would its reaction be?

    Further down in the article it says that if the toys are a success as a a toy, then we could end up with robot vacuum cleaners some time next year. Nice idea, but are we only going to see automated household servants if some kids toys are sold first?
    • by Anonymous Coward
      we already have robot vaccuum cleaners. Nakamichi has 2 and I believe that Toyosho will also release one soon. The Japanese are years ahead of us in robotics and home automation. they have things we wont see for at least 6-7 years.
  • Funny comment (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Oroborus ( 131587 ) on Sunday December 23, 2001 @09:07AM (#2743951)
    The article does bring up the following mental picture:

    "What do you think would happen if we could build cheap little credit card floor cleaners that match your linoleum? You could toss them on the floor and all you notice is that your floor is always clean and the cockroaches are nervous,"

    I just can't help but laugh out loud at the thought of cockroaches developing a complex because of the moving floor. lol!
  • NASA (Score:4, Informative)

    by nr ( 27070 ) on Sunday December 23, 2001 @09:08AM (#2743952) Homepage
    I read somewhere (Slashdot?) NASA was on the same strategy of sending small independent solar powered spider-like autonomous robots to futher explore the surface of mars beyond what was done by the pathfinder. The good thing is that they can stay alive of a very long time and need zero human surveillance, as long as there are solarpower and all parts like legs, electronics, cameras and other sensors are operational (make them in a strong material like titanium).
  • neat stuff (Score:5, Informative)

    by Hadlock ( 143607 ) on Sunday December 23, 2001 @09:33AM (#2743975) Homepage Journal
    ...requires 4 AA batteries though. these aren't the tiny (size of a deck of cards0 solarbotics you've seen before, they're closer in footprint size comparable to that of a sheet of paper.

    would it be possible to get a solar panel from radio-shack (~6$) to trickle charge the bug while it's active, thus increasing battery life? 2 solar cells?

    a nice vivisection of the BIO Bugs: []
    • ...requires 4 AA batteries though. these aren't the tiny (size of a deck of cards0 solarbotics you've seen before, they're closer in footprint size comparable to that of a sheet of paper.

      That's too bad - I was interested in miniature little bug-like things and probably would have bought the whole set if they were, say, four inches or less in length. I dont't want a bunch of big clunky things rattling across my floor.

      Oh well, when the Japanese get hold of this they'll get smaller :-)

    • by Broadcatch ( 100226 ) on Sunday December 23, 2001 @11:21AM (#2744135) Homepage
      Disposable batteries are terrible for the environment, but people seem to be buying more all the time. With the motors in this bug, it'll eat batteries like roach food.

      I'd like to see a story on Slashdot about using rechargables instead - and how can we spread the meme to get others to use them? I like the NiMH batteries I get from Thomas Distributing [] - I've used two sets I bought for my digital camera for over two years and over 14,000 pictures - and they recharge in two hours!
      • Disposable batteries are terrible for the environment, but people seem to be buying more all the time.

        Get rechargables.

        Only problem I've had with them is the scarcity of true 1.5V rechargables - seems they're all 1.25V for some reason.

        • Basic electrochemistry. They aren't really batteries, they're "cells", meaning they output whatever voltage your choice of electrodes combines to (redox reactions). Lithiums do 3.0V if I remember correctly. Ni-Cd and Ni-MH do 1.2 and 1.25 respectively, iirc.
          • I don't know all the chemistry behind it, but I've been a bit confused about rechargeables too. The whole "nominal voltage" thing -- I've never seen it explained anywhere. For instance, a 1.2v "nominal voltage" NiCD AA is usually around 1.4v on a full charge. (So one of my robots' "12v" battery packs is almost 15v on a full charge.) Even my 12v lead-acid battery is about 14v on a full charge. (Which surprised me. I was assured that the voltage drop between "full" and "empty" on a lead acid battery would be in the tenths of a volt, but I've experienced a range more like 14v-11v.) Anyone care to shed light on this?
            • First, let me say that my first suspicion in this case would be your multimeter. I've measured an aweful lot of NiCD AA's in my time, and anything well beyond 1.2-1.3V is unusual, to say the least.

              Now, the lead-acid battery is a collection of cells, so there's no telling what the regular "rated" voltage is without knowing the number of cells involved, and the sepecific chemistry (some of the new gel-batteries are slightly different). It would seem that it was measured under certain nominal load conditions. This is often true for large batteries that must supply current under heavy load (car batteries come to mind). In this case, they may stack more cells than would seem appropriate.

              The simplest way to explain this would be to connect a certain resistor (the load resistor) across the battery and measure the voltage across the resistor. It will be quite a bit lower than the maximum (unloaded) voltage.

              To deliver power to a heavy load at a certain voltage, the internal resistance must be taken into consideration (it acts as a voltage divider, further elaboration can be found in any basic electronics text). So to achieve a certain voltage under load, it must actually deliver a higher potential unloaded.

              An interesting one is that, as a cell/battery is discharged, the unloaded voltage stays roughly the same, while the loaded voltage drops. (Which is where the so-called "internal resistance" of the battery comes from. The voltage essentially stays the same, but the ability to supply current drops, hence a higher "internal resistance").

              In any situation where the voltage really matters, a solid-state regulator should be used, since the actual voltage from most power sources is uncertain.

      • That's because there's a conspiracy by the battery manufacturers to stop the meme spreading! Think how much revenue they get from disposable batteries, and how much they stand to lose.

        However, that's not to say disposable batteries don't have a use. The high leakage rate of rechargeables often prohibit them from being used in eg. clocks.

        mata ne,
  • but if you were skimming, you may have missed it:

    "...The fact is kids need to build things. They need to find out just what firecrackers will do to the insides of a dead frog..."

    Interesting idea, I think I shall have to find out what does happen.

  • I figure I'm getting one of these for Christmas, because I put it on the list and my parents said "What the hell is a BIO Bug and where would we get one?" I figure it will be a neat conversation piece at work (hey, I'm 32 :)). But I need more local geek friends to get these things so we can battle them. I hope I can get some fun out of it by itself, butI'm not sure. The article gives me hope, though.
  • by sinserve ( 455889 ) on Sunday December 23, 2001 @10:04AM (#2744022)
    Tilden ..[snip].. says he loves living in New Mexico."I can't think of a better place to release large herds of autonomous robots," he joked.

    You know, New Mexicans should stop worrying about
    UFOs, and start worrying about scientists

  • I wonder how one of these little suckers will react with my Rottweiler?
    Could be a bad idea, plus it may breed with the other bugs and rodents around my house creating some form of cyborg highbred bug with AI!
    • Actually, I've noticed that my sister's dogs (a Pekinese and a Rottweiler) don't care the slightest bit about my robots. It's quite odd, really. The robot will be approaching them, but they won't even look at it or move until it bumps into them. Of course all my robots use wheels instead of legs, maybe that has something to do with it...
  • I'm actualy far more interested in the more practical applciations, like the potention vaccum cleaner mentioned. If it's not too expensive I would definetly dole out for one of these. Heaven knows my cartpet could need it. But what else could these be used for? Heck, it would be kewl to have a bunch of little ants the cleant to dust out of my machine, or to unclog the toilet or clean out behind the fridge. This sounds like it could lead to somse perty kewl "furturistic" sstuff, and maybe even at an aaffordable cost.


    • Re:Vaccum Cleaners (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Uberminky ( 122220 ) on Sunday December 23, 2001 @11:41AM (#2744184) Homepage
      I'm going to get modded to oblivian for this, but..

      I hate to be a burster of bubbles, but this stuff is going too far. Sure, it's cool that Tilden makes these robots with a handful of transistors. What's not cool is how he goes on about how incredible they are, and implies that he can make them do things he can't. Yeah, that'd be cool if he could make these bugs clean his windows and vacuum his floors, like the article suggests. But how would that happen? It would have to be either so crude that it had to work, or so complex that his dinky little creatures could never do it. Folks, these are Braitenberg vehicles, nothing more. I just get very annoyed with the way he belittles digital computing, and yet has very little to show for things on the analog side.

      What he can do in 5 transistors, I can do in 5 lines of code on a microcontroller. (Or 5 transistors, I'm not limited to the digital world. It's the design that matters.) And indeed, if a simple analog circuit can be built easily which solves the problem, it will invariably be superior to a comparable software solution. But the unfortunate fact is, you can't do anything worthwhile at this level of simplicity. Sure, biology is elegant. It's bloody incredible. But saying Tilden's robots are comparable to biology, or that they "learn", or any of the other claims I keep hearing... Yeesh. Let's get a grip, people. Ever heard of the C. Elegans? That's about as simple as biology gets, and yet it is lightyears ahead of anything we've got, digital or analog.

      Yes, analog robotics are very cool. Yes, there is great potential. But BEAM robots? Let's get real. Use the best tool for the job, right? I have yet to see a job for which these devices prove more than mere toys. Somebody prove me wrong.

      Modders, do your worst.

      -David, President, IU Robotics Club []
      • I agree completely. Working with robots and attending public competitions every year (I'm on a RoboCup team), the topic of beam robots and Tilden's work invariably comes up at some point. People need to know that while interesting, this work doesn't scale. Right now, nothing scales very well; But competing to see how efficiently you can mimic something dumber than a sea-monkey doesn't make much of a difference. Tilden probably understands this, but of course he never says this in interviews, which is a shame.

        So, I usually tell people this: Rodney Brookes' robots did pretty much the same thing in the 80s. These analog robots are cheaper and simpler, but no smarter (and usually dumber). I will believe they are the future of robots when they can beat the best computer controlled robot team at any nontrivial robotics competition (AAAI, RoboCup, Mirosot, etc.)
  • by Lobo_Louie ( 545789 ) on Sunday December 23, 2001 @12:07PM (#2744242)
    ... next year's toys will have 24 transitors (cost less and require 2 fans).
  • by Auxon ( 97887 ) on Sunday December 23, 2001 @12:23PM (#2744275) Homepage

    This is a great idea for kids to learn about neural networks. It's simple enough that a child (and adult) can understand but complex enough to be challenging.

    The best part is the ability to "rewire" the BIOBugs neural network. The process of trying to figure out why the toy responds to stimulae, or how to get it to respond another way would encourage children to learn about a science that doesn't get much attention right now.

    If the toy sells well, we may have a generation of people who can produce new and useful neural networks, for AI and other purposes. Robot Wars will become very interesting!

  • "Some of the great minds of the 130s and 140s actually were working with cybernetics like these," Tilden said.

    130? 140?
    Wow! These robots are older than the catholic church!
  • Tilden has created an army of lifelike robotic bugs that use transistors, rather than computers, to control their actions."

    Transistors, and than computers...anyone else find something oddly funny there.

  • AI? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by rveno1 ( 470619 ) on Sunday December 23, 2001 @01:51PM (#2744497)
    I belive a lot of people missed an IMPORTANT aspect of this story!

    that is that these little bugs are a BASIC form of AI!. think about it a bug that interacts with its environment the way a little bug works and this is simulating a type of intelligence.
  • by StaticEngine ( 135635 ) on Sunday December 23, 2001 @02:48PM (#2744693) Homepage
    One BIO-Bug by itself is pretty dull. At $40 a pop, buying several ranks somewhere below buying a console game, which is fun by itself at about the same cost. They also turn worse than the Titanic on shag carpet, but seem to do better on linolium or hardwood.

    I guess if you have a Garage, and can afford to blow $80+ on a few of these guys, they could be highly amusing. Maybe they're also good for the office, if your coworkers aren't annoyed by the constant "chirp-chirp-chirp-ANNNHHHHH-ANNNNHHHH!" sound that they emit...

    Just my NSHO, after buying one a month ago and turning it on exactly three times.
  • Lets see here, 12 transistors? That comes out to 479,001,600 possible combinations. Now you throw 4 of these things into the same environment and you get 11,496,038,400 possible combinations of interaction (all things being equal, as if that were possible). Hmmm, somewhere in there there's gotta be a monkey banging on a typewriter. Wonder what kind of Shakespeare you could get...
  • This is a great comment. Read what he says:

    Rather than kits where you put things together, these are working creatures designed so you can open them up and mess with their heads. This is the kind of thing young kids want to do, but they can't open up their dogs or cats or goldfish."

    And just imagine that - a kid opening up it's dog's head to change its behaviour. "Fetch! Oh alright then, I'll make you fetch!"

  • You know we were all supposed to have robots helping around the house by the 90s? And our own airplanes?

    If the toy bugs take off, robotic vacuum cleaners might appear as soon as next year, Tilden said.

    Riiiight ...

  • Does anyone here have any idea how it is possible to make something this complex with 12 transistors? Supposedly it can react to light/other objects, and most importantly, it can learn? Wouldn't just the memory required to remember things and learn take up far more than 12 transistors, let alone the logic needed to process sensory input? And simple enough for a child to reprogram? I could be wrong, but these claims seem a bit suspicious to me...
  • I would like a robot toy that can communicate with a regular desktop computer via standard walky-talky-like frequencies (or whatever they use now), and be programmed and controlled from the **desk-top**. You get more computing power and a bigger screen that way.

    It would have wheels, a digital eye, microphone, speaker (to remotely yell at the kids), and an arm with a pressure-measuring claw.

    Also, couldn't 12 transister reactions be simulated with a low-end on-board computer chip? Why not use the full power of a computer rather than just transisters. The are other ways to program things that just neural nets. We could write something as single as:

    if image_change > 20% then bark and move forward (assuming the camera is facing forward.)

    Make something to fetch beer, and you will be a millionare.
    • Please keep in mind there is power in analog technology that has been ignored or lost totally in our total digital absorption. Consider if each of the million little transistors in that chip you mention had infinite states -- rather than just on-off.
      • (* Please keep in mind there is power in analog technology that has been ignored or lost totally in our total digital absorption. Consider if each of the million little transistors in that chip you mention had infinite states -- rather than just on-off. *)

        In practice, a set of descrete states can emulate analog devices pretty well. If the *practical* granularity was truly as minute as you suggest, then such a toy would be quite fragile to things like temperature change, and so on. Same with the human brain: a little coffee or minor bump on the head does not completely cause us to reboot.

        Thus, there is plenty of evidence that such "infinitity" cannot truely be obsorbed or used by analogy machines.

Decaffeinated coffee? Just Say No.