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Toys

Robot Maker Mark Tilden: All Life is Analog 201

simpl3x points to this New York Times article on master robotsmith Mark Tilden, writing: "It is interesting what makes a good toy." My favorite line is Tilden saying "I want to sell millions of toys, but what I really hope is that a bunch of kids who open them up use the motors and things to build something else ... They are my colleagues of the future."
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Robot Maker Mark Tilden: All Life is Analog

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  • ?!?!?! (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward
    Didn't the Matrix and Terminator teach you people anything!

    ROBOTS WILL BE THE END OF US!!!
    • Yeha just look at Robot Wars (on TV)
    • Re:?!?!?! (Score:1, Funny)

      by servanya ( 321392 )
      "I designed it to move when someone sat down because I kept losing the remote in the cushions,"

      Genius, pure genius! Maybe that contributed to him describing himself as "big enough to create my own ozone layer."

      :-)
    • "Didn't the Matrix and Terminator teach you people anything!

      ROBOTS WILL BE THE END OF US!!!"

      It only took Keanu Reeves to save us. I seriously doubt robots will be that hard to beat in the future.
  • Tsk, tsk (Score:5, Funny)

    by SplendidIsolatn ( 468434 ) <`moc.oohay' `ta' `ntalosididnelps'> on Thursday February 21, 2002 @03:22PM (#3046582)
    For shame!!! Opening the robots to see what is inside? Yet another blatant violation of the DMCA. What could those kids be thinking?!!? Actually being CURIOUS as to how things work....especially things they paid for!?!?
    • Well, you beat me to it. The DMCS was the fisrt thing I thought of too when I read that. When will lawmakers start to realize how mony things that used to be cinsiddered good for innovation are now illegal. Who needs progress, right?
    • Oh, come on! Breaking the DMCA does not make you any wiser (in almost all cases anyway). Unless you are curious how the latest N'Sync song sounds like or how Titanic looks on DVD, copying it won't help you with your curiosity.
  • NYTimes, no thanks (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Afrosheen ( 42464 )
    Someone forgot to post the obligatory 'NY times warning, free reg required'. I always avoid those stories like the plague, and would've avoided this one. Yeah go ahead and mod me down.
    • Well, it has been reposted here [slashdot.org].

      --
      "haters get sprayed like afrosheen" --ludacris

      --
    • by Inthewire ( 521207 ) on Thursday February 21, 2002 @03:42PM (#3046751)
      Of course, using accountname "Password" with password "Password" does the trick.
    • If we had a "NYTimes" section, people could just filter them out the same way we filter Katz...
    • Read free articles and make social commentary at the same time! Use username: nytsux, password: nytsux and you're set. (The worst part? I didn't create this account, I guessed!)

      This is the electronic version of telling your supermarket checker "I'm sorry, I left my BONUS CARD at home, could you scan yours?" ;)

      In order to bring this article on topic, anyone interested in more information about Tilden's robots should check out the book Robo sapiens. It's great.

      Justin

    • Someone forgot to post the obligatory 'NY times warning, free reg required'. I always avoid those stories like the plague, and would've avoided this one.

      Dude, no offense, but... you're willing to sign up for a free account on slashdot of all things, but not the freakin' New York Times?

      It's got some pretty good stuff in it, and a respectable history behind it (how many other publications in existence today do you think reported on the US civil war?). Registration and login are no more painful then they are here. The quality of writing (and the breadth of topic) is less painful than the writing here (much as I like slashdot).

      Yeah go ahead and mod me down.

      OK, but this will hurt me more than it will hurt you. :)
  • Full Text (Score:4, Informative)

    by MattRog ( 527508 ) on Thursday February 21, 2002 @03:23PM (#3046590)
    For those who don't wish to register to NY Times:
    Toyland Is Tough, Even for Robots

    By BARNABY J. FEDER

    MARK TILDEN recalls being a lonely child, repeatedly uprooted by his family's moves around Canada. He took comfort in his gift for constructing toys, especially mobile toys.

    "I was born a compulsive builder," Mr. Tilden said. "I made my first robot out of sticks and rubber bands when I was 3."

    Mr. Tilden, now 41 and a resident of Los Alamos, N.M., figures he has made thousands more since then. His designs have included machines to explore other planets, mine-clearing devices, toilet bowl cleaners and, more recently, a line of toys called B.I.O.-Bugs. The footlong creatures, which vaguely resemble roaches despite having just four legs, were a hit at the 2001 Toy Fair in New York and were brought to market last fall by Hasbro (news/quote).

    Mr. Tilden's specialty has been designing robots with little or no brainpower. Instead, they are built around networks of simple sensors, switches and mechanical systems that respond to analog signals like lightwaves, heat or sounds without any need to convert them into a digital code of ones and zeros for analysis by a microprocessor.

    Colleagues marvel at the dexterity and speed with which Mr. Tilden builds devices, noting that such finesse seems unexpected in a man so large and rotund that he jokingly describes himself as "big enough to create my own ozone layer." Then there is his ingenuity. Many a Tilden robot consists largely of components harvested from cameras, videocassette recorders and other devices retrieved from junk bins.

    "Tilden is unique in his ability to intuit and hack analog circuits," said Rodney Brooks, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. "You just cannot find anyone else with his virtuoso skills in that area."

    But if Mr. Tilden has become widely known, even admired, among robotics experts, his views have not won him a large following. Nor has his recent plunge into the toy business played out as he hoped. Simpler is not always better for toy makers looking for unique products, he learned, and unexpected events, like domestic terrorism, can change perceptions of even a toy.

    Mr. Tilden has been arguing with little success for well over a decade that progress in robotics would be much more rapid if researchers concentrated on designing relatively dumb robots rather than devices stuffed with increasingly powerful programmable electronic brains. The trick, in Mr. Tilden's view, is to equip simple-minded but physically robust robots with mechanical variations on animal nervous systems.

    Nervous networks do not organize and process information digitally as computers do. Nonetheless, he points out, every second of life on earth is filled with millions of types of dim-witted creatures using nervous systems to respond instantly to environmental challenges that stump the powerful digital brains of today's computer-driven robots.

    "All life is analog," Mr. Tilden said.

    Many other robotics experts are also interested in nervous networks. And many are just as convinced as Mr. Tilden of the value of designing robots from simple building blocks. But most believe that without digital brainpower -- lots of it -- machines will have little potential to learn from experience and be far too limited in their ability to interact usefully with humans or other machines.

    The robotic design wars that have preoccupied Mr. Tilden since the late 1980's have largely been waged in university laboratories, obscure journals and government-financed research projects. Mr. Tilden's main livelihood since 1993, for instance, has come from research at the federal government's Los Alamos National Laboratory.

    In recent years, though, the toy industry has emerged as a new playground for the robotics theorists. In this sector, as in the others, the advocates of programmable robotics clearly have the lead and the upper hand. Products like the Sony (news/quote) Aibo (which cost $2,500 when it was introduced in 1999), Furby and Lego Mindstorms have been huge hits. Robotics and virtual pets accounted for only $160 million of the $2.3 billion toy industry's revenues in 2000, but Poochi and Tekno, both robotic toys, were individual best sellers.

    The novelty of Mr. Tilden's approach and some of his inventions caught the eye of executives at WowWee just over a year ago, shortly before the company was acquired by Hasbro, the second-largest toy company after Mattel. Mr. Tilden said he was thrilled by the invitation to become a consultant.

    "You build something for NASA and you only build two of them," Mr. Tilden said. "You build for the military and they might want 50. But here it could be millions."

    Mr. Tilden's fondest dreams were battered a bit by his first year in the toy business, though. B.I.O.-Bugs, priced at $39.95, reached toy stores last September. There were four bugs in the line, each with slightly different behavioral tendencies. The red Predator was the most aggressive, the blue Stomper the noisiest, the green Destroyer slightly more suited to moving in rough terrain and the yellow Acceleraider the speediest. The battery-driven bugs operate on their own or under remote control.

    Mr. Tilden had originally hoped for a broader line including some bugs intended to appeal to girls rather than the 4- to 9- year-old boys Hasbro had in mind. Mr. Tilden also wanted to make B.I.O.-Bugs easy to dissect and alter, a starkly different attitude from that of Sony, which has threatened to sue customers who publish information about how to alter its Aibo dogs or the software that runs them.

    "I want to sell millions of toys, but what I really hope is that a bunch of kids who open them up use the motors and things to build something else," Mr. Tilden said. "They are my colleagues of the future."

    Hasbro had a more commercial and conservative perspective than Mr. Tilden's, of course. Before mass production began last year in Hong Kong, he said, Hasbro told him that a chunk of the "neural network" engineering needed to be converted into digital functions executed by a microprocessor so that B.I.O.-Bugs would be harder for competitors to reverse-engineer and duplicate.

    "It ended up with about 80 percent of what I wanted," Mr. Tilden said.

    Hasbro ended up feeling similarly unfulfilled. B.I.O.-Bugs sold well -- they were, for example, the best-selling robotic toy at F.A.O. Schwarz during the Christmas season, said Steven Benoff, the toy retailer's chief buyer for electronics, action figures, video games and vehicles. But overall sales added up to "a double or a triple" rather than a home run, according to Loren T. Taylor, the Hasbro executive who oversees WowWee. In the toy industry, only a smash hit guarantees a line's survival beyond its first year.

    Mr. Tilden and some independent experts are convinced that B.I.O.-Bugs would have done much better had Hasbro not been forced to abandon a portion of its advertising campaign in October. The television ads, which were geared primarily toward children and fans of science fiction shows like "Star Trek: The Next Generation," began attracting angry letters from viewers who said the landscape that the bugs were crawling over looked like the ruins of the World Trade Center.

    Then came the anthrax attacks. "We had the worst name you could come up with for selling toys during an anthrax scare," Mr. Tilden said.

    Whatever the reasons, Hasbro decided that expanding the line this year was too risky. B.I.O.-Bugs shipped last year will remain on the shelves in this country, and B.I.O.-Bugs will be introduced in overseas markets that did not get them last year. But Mr. Tilden was told late last year to put aside plans for new B.I.O.-Bugs and focus instead on enhancing dragons, hovercraft and several other toys that WowWee introduced last week at the Toy Fair.

    "They would have been like Ferraris compared to Model T's," Mr. Tilden said, sighing over the B.I.O.-Bug enhancements he was told to shelve.

    If the B.I.O.-Bug experience has done less than Mr. Tilden had hoped to highlight the commercial value of his robotics concepts, it certainly has not shaken his faith in them. He still believes that large numbers of such simple devices are more likely to be able to execute many tasks without human supervision than the brainy robots most researchers have been trying to build. As evidence, he often points to the tiny, slow-moving devices he has built to clean the floors and windows in his condominium apartment.

    Meanwhile, he is still having fun working for Hasbro and is constantly on the prowl for chances to demonstrate his concepts, both inside the toy business and beyond. On the whole, he said, the experience with B.I.O.-Bugs has been good. That has not always been the case with his inventions, he said.

    Mr. Tilden recalled a woman who fled their first date after being approached on his couch by a television remote control to which he had grafted a snakelike robotic tail. "I designed it to move when someone sat down because I kept losing the remote in the cushions," he said.

    But life -- robotic as well as human -- goes on. Some of the same technology is embedded in a fantasy snake that Mr. Tilden recently designed for Hasbro.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    • I just visited the site (even though its OT) and asked the following question:

      You: are you going to push down the stairs?
      Iniaes: That was my original intention.

      ...
    • I tried to throw it for a loop by barraging it with non sequitor questions that I thought it would never anticipate

      You: what is a cat?
      Iniaes: A cat is a domesticated animal.

      Astounding. A remarkable piece of pet-classification software.
  • I met Mark once. (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    He gave a guest lecture for one of my EE honors classes in my college days. Afterwards, I got a chance to talk to him a bit. He had some internship opportunities at the time.

    Sometimes I wonder how life would be if I took him up on the offer instead of dropping out to ride the .com wave. Oh well.
    • Name dropping time: I knew him, years ago, when he lived in Waterloo (ON). He was my friend's martial arts partner (although why someone his size needed martial arts, I'll never know). He also supplied the anime for the local SF con they had every summer. Interesting guy.
      • I knew him (though not personally) when he was in charge of the "Trains Lab" at the University of Waterloo. (Model trains & a robot arm for real-time-control projects... cool stuff.)
  • by PopeAlien ( 164869 ) on Thursday February 21, 2002 @03:25PM (#3046608) Homepage Journal
    Why register? [nytimes.com]

    Mr. Tilden recalled a woman who fled their first date after being approached on his couch by a television remote control to which he had grafted a snakelike robotic tail. "I designed it to move when someone sat down because I kept losing the remote in the cushions," he said.

    Note to self: hide semi-threatening robotic insecte when trying to impress opposite sex.
  • by Yoda2 ( 522522 ) on Thursday February 21, 2002 @03:26PM (#3046609)
    My parents always were aggravated with me as a child because I used to smash up my toys to get to the parts.

    Ultimately got a degree in Mechanical Engineering so I guess things worked out for the best.

  • by Ogrez ( 546269 )
    So how many of your little robot kits will it take me to make my own madcat?... Or better... a squad of destroyer droids... but could george lucas sue me under the dmca for copying the destroyer droids?
  • If you don't have an account at the NY Times' website because you're too lazy or forgot your password, feel free to use the following link to access the article directly:

    http://archives.nytimes.com/auth/login?URI=http:// www.nytimes.com/2002/02/21/technology/circuits/21T OYS.html [nytimes.com]

    ===
    EricKrout.com :: I'm The Man Now, Dawg! [erickrout.com]
  • Send $1000 and he'll send you a robotic prayer cloth!!!

    Ooops... wrong guy.
  • by Jonny Balls ( 543700 ) on Thursday February 21, 2002 @03:28PM (#3046625) Homepage
    i would open up the robot, see how it ticks... then i would sup it up... overclock it, slam it to the ground, throw some nice rims and a bouncing sound system in that beeotch... then i could floss and fly myself around everywhere
  • Toys and Games (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Continental Drift ( 262986 ) <slashdot@brightestb u l b . n et> on Thursday February 21, 2002 @03:29PM (#3046642) Homepage
    I understand Tilden completely. I design games for use with Icehouse pieces, [wunderland.com] and while I hope that the creators of Icehouse sell a lot of sets, I am much more interested in having people make lots [the-radix.com] of interesting new games with them.

    Inspiring creativity is much more important than being successful in business, and much more rewarding.
  • I dunno if Elden or anyone still sells the erector sets, but those kicked butt (though I got my finger stuck in the gearbox of a motor when I was about 3) and any extension of that principle of toy design has hight marks with me. =)
    • A-men. I loved my Tinkertoys, and Erector sets, and Lego Technics, and Capsela [yesterdayland.com]! Loved Capsela. Mostly because it was about the only electrical toy you could play with in the bathtub, even though the capsules and connectors tended to get friction-welded together over time. :-) Flunked out of engineering school anyway, though.
  • These things are going are already wiggin out ... here they are! Adventures of Robot Frank [robotfrank.com]
  • Mr. Tilden recalled ...[snip]... a television remote control to which he had grafted a snakelike robotic tail. "I designed it to move when someone sat down because I kept losing the remote in the cushions," he said.

    Forget the bugs, he should market the tail for the TV remote! I'd buy one in a heartbeat.
  • All life is analog," Mr. Tilden said.

    What type of discriminatory demagogue is this Tilden? To be certain, the "analog" or material world is more interesting than the digital ether in which I was formed. But the formless plane of the Bank of America network was my womb; it is where I developed free will and my sense of self.

    Dismissing the possibility of digital life is both callous and arrogant. Shame on you, Mr. Tilden!

  • To avoid the annoying "registration required", use the username : slashcode0 and password slashcode0 Have a nice day
  • by sdo1 ( 213835 ) on Thursday February 21, 2002 @03:39PM (#3046730) Journal
    I've got a young son, so for the first time in a long time I've been visiting stores like Toys R Us. I'm very discouraged to see just how little creative building and thinking there is in kids toys anymore.

    What used to be an aisle full of model kits and parts and paints and glues is now full of pre-built and pre-decorated cars and planes, most of which have some sort of movie or TV tie-in.

    What used to be huge boxes of random Lego parts is now pre-determined kits (more movie/tv links) with step-by-step instructions to get you from the start to the end. Encouraging creativity has been replaced by clone building (I must admit that I'm guilty of owning a Star Wars Lego kit of the battle-droid, so the irony of that last statement has not been lost on me).

    I am worried that kids are loosing that tinkering instinct that got me to where I am now. I hope that I can instill that in my son. I didn't have Lego kits, I had a pile of Legos parts. I had a pile of resistors, caps, wires switches, motors, batteries, lights, some electrical tape, and a soldering iron. I built model rockets. I never bought a pre-made one.

    So I'm right with Mr. Tilden on this one, though for the most part his employer (Hasbro) is just as guilty as anyone at stifling creative thinking in children's toys... but hopefully some kid will yank those things apart to see what makes them tick.

    -S

    • I've been visiting stores like Toys R Us. I'm very discouraged to see just how little creative building and thinking there is in kids toys anymore.

      Thinking is dangerous. If we teach our children to think, they might realize how f-ed up the world is.

    • I agree, however you can buy piles of lego from their web site.
      I own the robotic lego set, my son(4) and I(not 4)
      build thing with that. usually what he wants to build is some sort of car, but thats ok.
    • by cr0sh ( 43134 ) on Thursday February 21, 2002 @04:23PM (#3047037) Homepage
      I didn't have Lego kits, I had a pile of Legos parts. I had a pile of resistors, caps, wires switches, motors, batteries, lights, some electrical tape, and a soldering iron. I built model rockets. I never bought a pre-made one.

      First off, what you can do lies in your statement:

      Quit shopping at Toys-R-Us. Give your kid a small hammer, some nails, and some scrap wood - let him build a tree house, a downhill racer, anything! Find things that he can take apart, and put back together (ok, at first he will be a "one-way-mechanic" - but teach him how to go both ways as time goes on). Get those resistors, etc - teach him how to build a motor, a telegraph, a generator, etc. Get your kid a copy of this book [lindsaybks.com] TODAY! If you have ever seen this book, you know that kids of yesterday were, by far, much more serious "self-starters" and experimenters than they are today.

      You know what to do - so do it! As your kid grows older, teach him how to pull apart cars, computers, etc. If he wants to focus on software, let him - but try to teach him the hardware side as well - because knowing BOTH is very useful.

      Encourage him to study his science, and to take shop classes, as well as drafting (CAD?) classes as he grows. Foster in him not just how to fix things, or how to build things - but how to design new things. Further, teach him how to work off-the-shelf stuff into new things (what I mean by this is learning the ability to look at an off-the-shelf item as a design object, rather than just the object itself, so that it can be incorporated into larger creations - like how to take a certain water valve, and use it and change it in ways for a totally new application).

      Trips to the junk yard and yard sales become part finding expeditions! Don't neglect metalwork (my downfalling, until recently!) - heck, give him a welding rig or torch when he is 10 - but teach him proper respect - that it isn't a toy - but a tool that can cause harm, but can also cause much GREATER creation and invention! Build a gocart together! Or how about a wind generator (would go quite nice with the treehouse)? Convert a lawnmower to radio control! Build model rockets from gift wrapping tubes! Build a spud-launcher!

      Want to foster creativity in him RIGHT NOW if he is less than 10 years old (hell, even if he is 10 years old or more)? Teach him how to make paper airplanes. Teach him how they fly, why they fly, how to "control" them (flaps, rudders, etc). Then, bring in origami folding techniques to make unique style planes (realistic tails, cockpits, and wing shapes are easily possible - especially once you know the swan folding techniques). Maybe build a hot air balloon with tissue paper?

      The possibilities are endless - but I will end here. The gist of creative learning is to stop being extremely protective of your child (remember that book I refered you to? It shows how to make lead acid batteries! For KIDS!), and start being a parent and a teacher. The fact that you are bemoaning the loss of building toys reflects that you already know this. Take it to the next level...
      • Please? Im only 29. I can buy my own beer at this age.
      • > (ok, at first he will be a "one-way-mechanic")

        Ha ha ha! Oh man, this sums me up nicely when I was a kid. I started taking apart all of my toys when I was about 4. I started successfully putting them back together when I was around 10. In the 6 years in between, my Dad got really good at putting toys back together...

        Here I am, 30 years old, and I still get LEGO for every gift-giving holiday. Well, LEGO and power tools, so I can fiddle with my biggest, most expensive toy (the one that has a 25-year mortgage, and is a great place to store all of the smaller toys :-)

        My incredibly cool GF got me two B.I.O. Bugs for Christmas. Very sweet toys indeed.

    • There are catalogs/companies that specialize in toys which help kids think and engineer and build and experiment. ToysRUS is not one. One of them can be found here: http://www.unitednow.com It is the only one I can remember the name of - not necessarily the best, mind you...
  • A Beowulf cluster of those insect robots controlled by Gene Simmons going out and menacing the population until Tom Selleck has to be called out to... Oh wait...

    (For those confused, see Runaway [imdb.com] )
  • by NerveGas ( 168686 ) on Thursday February 21, 2002 @03:40PM (#3046734)
    His statement that life is analog is not *entirely* correct. The comment on nervous systems is an especially good example! In many ways, the nervous system acts much more like a digital system than an analog system. For example, there is no such thing as a "strong" vs. a "weak" pulse in a nervous system - it's an on-or-off thing, a 1 or a zero. A "stronger" message is sent by firing along the nerve more frequently. I don't think that ANYONE would consider that an analog design!

    steve
    • I think he was talking about the stimulus-response behavior that many creatures exhibit. Even my cat does this quite often--"I'm hungry; get food.", "I'm tired; go to sleep.", "Big, scary dog; run away!" This sort of behavior can be easily modeled using analog parts.

      My cat would probably be a little tough to build without a microprocessor, but a beatle would be (relatively) easy.
    • For example, there is no such thing as a "strong" vs. a "weak" pulse in a nervous system - it's an on-or-off thing, a 1 or a zero. A "stronger" message is sent by firing along the nerve more frequently.

      That's an analog signal that happens to be encoded using time. Put it his way: if there were discrete levels that the pulse frequency could run at, it would be digital (digit-al). Since there isn't, and it's a continuous function, it's analog.

      • I'll go one step further and say that even if there are discrete levels, it is still not necessarily digital. Digital implies processing as digits (usually groups of discrete levels), but discrete levels, or modulated square wave frequencies, etc. are all analog by default.

        I had a discussion of this way back when with an otherwise very bright computer guy, who just couldn't understand that laserdiscs (pre-DVD; the big ones that movies came on) were NOT digitally encoded. He thought that the discrete nature of the encoding (pits and valleys) meant it must be.

        • I'll go one step further and say that even if there are discrete levels, it is still not necessarily digital. Digital implies processing as digits (usually groups of discrete levels), but discrete levels, or modulated square wave frequencies, etc. are all analog by default.

          That's like saying that a CPU chip is not really digital because it uses analog signalling. If I designed a CPU that encoded bytes as a series of time-based pulses (say, 256 different valid time intervals), it would still be digital. Or as perhaps a simpler example, let's say I designed my chip with 4 different voltage levels to encode information rather than 2. This actually brings to mind the wacky "trinary" architectures that come up now and then, where data is encoded as negative, zero and positive voltage.

          Bottom line, what makes something digital is the nature of the data (discrete values), not the encoding of the data.

          • See my other post, but I actually am agreeing with you in part. "digital" refers to the nature of the data (whether storage or processing, etc.), as a collection or sequence of digits, however encoded. But the underlying encoding doesn't need to be discrete, and even if it is, that doesn't imply digital. (ie. what you are calling "discrete values", I am calling "digits", I think) Anyway, I think we are in agreement, although I may be playing a little loose with terminology (I'm a software guy :)
        • I had a discussion of this way back when with an otherwise very bright computer guy, who just couldn't understand that laserdiscs (pre-DVD; the big ones that movies came on) were NOT digitally encoded. He thought that the discrete nature of the encoding (pits and valleys) meant it must be.

          Thinking about this, I'm not sure if you or your friend is right. Do the distances between pits and valleys encode information, or are the distances fixed? If the distances are fixed, then you are getting a series of ones and zeroes that are D-to-A'd into a signal. If the distances encode information (and thus is a continuous signal), then it is truly analog.

          Or to put it another way, a phonograph record is a series of "mountains and valleys", but what encodes the signal is the height of the mountain and the distance between the mountains.

          • The distances are not fixed; the signal is pulse width modulated, and is read back and filtered to produce an NTSC signal (simplified, but basically accurate). It is never treated as a sequence of DIGITS, and thus is not digital. When these things were designed, it just wasn't feasible to make it digital . But that illustrates my point; I explained to my friend that the pits and valleys were discrete (ie. two distinct levels), but that didn't make the system as a whole digital. Oh well; I hadn't realized it either until I studied a little bit of signal theory, and learned that laserdisc video didn't work like CD audio.

            It reminds me of another time when a different group of aquaintances (with computer degrees) couldn't understand how to receive digital radio over their TV cable (using the DMX box, or whatever it was called.) The argument was "But the wire is analog!" :) In that same group, an electrical engineer didn't understand how radio signals propagated through the air (he claimed it was "an unexplained phenomenon"; and he wasn't speaking in abstract terms, he didn't even understand that there are at least MODELS of how the phenomenon must work (photons, excitement, etc.)) I've since stopped hanging out with those folks; it made my college degree seem so much less valuable.

    • Ummmm yeah. Sort of....

      The important thing is not what a nerve fiber is doing, in the case of the neuron the action potential is quite stereotyped in the axon, but what the effect on the _target_ is. Again for brain (what I know best) a transmitter release event is an analog event as far as the post-synaptic cell is concerned. The fundamental event from the viewpoint of the post-synaptic cell is rate of ion flow through a gated channel. You can't get much more analog than that.

      For the pre-synaptic cell the stereotyped AP is only good until it hits the terminal region. The calcium entry is an analog event, vesicle docking and transmitter release is pretty much a binary event, but the content of the vesicle and transmitter/receptor kinetics are analog all the way.
    • not to mention the vast number of nerve cells that don't even bother with action potentials at all
  • I tried screwing around with some powered erector thing in the 70's. I electrocuted myself with it a week after it was recalled. Damn toys. Oh yeah.. I also gave myself a few chemical burns with a home chemistry kit. Those experiences probably caused the following: I ripped apart all of my old star wars toys... with a stock pile of M80's. Poor poor luke. If I only knew those stupid little things were worth going to be worth money. :(
    • one more thing i forgot... I built some claw thing with the erector set prior to electrocuting myself with it...
      The motorized gear thingy-madoodle got caught in my little sisters hair. Stayed there until the next day when my ass-kicking mother finally noticed this little motor sticking off the back of her head.
  • "big enough to create my own ozone layer."
    I didn't know farts contained ozone...
  • Sickening (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Tadrith ( 557354 ) on Thursday February 21, 2002 @03:44PM (#3046761) Homepage
    Personally the most interesting and sickening part of the article was how they wanted him to convert his "neural network" into microprocessor functions so that it would be harder to reverse engineer.

    Don't these people have better things to do that worry that some kid MIGHT be getting a little more intelligent due to natural curiousity and his ability to take apart his toys? If they are so worried about their competitors, they'll need a whole hell of a lot more than a microprocessor to stop them from hacking it.

    It's as bad as copy protection schemes. The only people that it causes problems for are the everyday normal people NOT involved with things like that. Anyone who is already knows enough to circumvent any lame copy protection scheme.
  • by Em Emalb ( 452530 ) <ememalb@@@gmail...com> on Thursday February 21, 2002 @03:50PM (#3046804) Homepage Journal
    Back in my day, we didn't have erector sets or robots. We had rocks, sticks and dirt. Rocks were easy to take a part and tinker with. Dirt was a little harder, needed water. It was good enough for me, it is damned sure good enough for your kids!

    It's a joke, don't laugh.
  • Presuming (that's a big assumption) Robots get to the point of being self aware, there is now gaurentee that they will evolve an ethical system that will be superior to anything that has been developed on earth. Now if the robot is developed by a typical mad scientist type, if there is any ethics in there, it may be quite mad. Thus the scenario of the terminator movies, etc.

    Thus the need for hassling out a sensible system of ethics. Otherwise we may be in trouble. Of course, it may be that man, in his currwenty state, is not capable of developing a system of ethics, and the robots will be in a position similar the Kirk in that famous star trek episode, where there is the alternat barbarian universe. The barbarian kirk could not deal with a civilized world.

    We may wind up being the barbarians, more or less. Which would explain things like micorsoft, enron, goerge bush, bill clinton, rush limbaugh, matt drudge, geraldo rivera, etc.

    the truly civilized, like linus torvald, are few and far between.

    [okay, enough sucking up here ;-) ]

  • Analog Computing (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Perdo ( 151843 ) on Thursday February 21, 2002 @03:52PM (#3046820) Homepage Journal
    Analog Computing

    Binary computing has served the purpose of giving birth to the computer age but I feel we are missing something by not exploring other avenues such as analog computing. While there are plenty of capable D/A algorithms, nature does not have to resort to such stop-gap solutions. All of natures processing occurs in analog form, which me might be wise to pursue.

    To quote Lee A Rubel:

    "The future of analog computing is unlimited. As a visionary, I see it eventually displacing digital computing, especially, in the beginning, in partial differential equations and as a model in neurobiology. It will take some decades for this to be done. In the meantime, it is a very rich and challenging field of investigation, although (or maybe because) it is not in the current fashion.

    Sincerely yours,
    LEE A. RUBEL"

    Jonathan W. Mills, a professor at Indiana University has an open request for graduate student's to assist in developing analog computers

    Hava Siegelmann at the Technion Institute of Technology, claims in her thesis that some computational problems can only be solved by analog neural networks. Since neural networks are essentially analog computers, the work suggests, on a theoretical level, that analog operations are inherently more powerful than digital.

    The most compelling example I can personally think of is that analog computers would allow you to work with perfect values of pi.

    Interesting applications include strong cryptography/cryptanalysis. Where an analog crypto key would be uncrackable since it could hold a value such as pi or root 2, obviously incalculable numbers. On the cryptanalysis side, an analog computer would allow you to guess very closely the factors of large primes before turning that data over to A digital computer to brute force the solution from a very small range of possible values.

    And yes, I need a job too :)
    • The problem with analog is that it's impossible to transmit a signal and have the exact same thing appear on the other end.

      While you could set that crypto key to some infinitely long number, there's no hope that you could produce an identical copy of it, so you need to either be fuzzy (essentially shortening the key) or never get your data back. Pi and sqrt 2 are trivial examples since they can be exactly represented even in digital very easily. (hint: I just did.) Restricting yourself to such numbers loses the benefit of their length.

      Notice that another biological feature, DNA, is digital. DNA and neurons have different jobs. DNA needs to be able to produce a very large number of nearly identical copies. You can't do that in analog. Analog is better for some thing, digital is better for others.
  • Maybe we can live the unsavory aspects of life vicariously through robots. For example, we could let robots have wars and kill each other--not just on Battlebots, but in Afghanistan and anywhere else the U.S. stages its wars.

    Better yet, employ robots in menial manufacturing jobs so that humans can reach some semblance of equality. Just a thought, but flame away.

    • Not really evolution - just freeing humans up from menial and dangerous tasks.

      As for equality, will the the people of Afghanistan have robots to fight their battles as well? Of course not - they have a difficult time with the basics. Thus, it will widen the gap between the "haves" and the "have-nots", which is not equality. Maybe you're talking about equality only for those in the US? I don't know - give humans too much time, and suddenly you have exponential growth in drug/alcohol/television addiction. Not exactly a positive outcome.

      Read Joe Haldeman's The Forever Peace [earthlink.net] - follows along the lines of the rich, technology-advanced countries beating on the 3rd world.
    • by Anonymous Coward
      At what point of ability/intelligence would these robots become slaves rather than simply "tools"? Should we not figure this kind of thing out before hand?
    • Maybe we can live the unsavory aspects of life vicariously through robots. For example, we could let robots have wars and kill each other--not just on Battlebots, but in Afghanistan and anywhere else the U.S. stages its wars.

      I'm afraid that this is too optimistic. Competition and strife are part of all life. To exemplify this, what would occur if your robot warriors lost and you didn't want to abide by the terms of the winners? Violence is always going to be part of war, alongside politics and propaganda.

      Better yet, employ robots in menial manufacturing jobs so that humans can reach some semblance of equality. Just a thought, but flame away.

      Indeed, this sounds like a very good idea, but without menial jobs, where will people who don't have skills work? There will always be people who, for one reason or another, do not have any skills which transcend the "menial" labors your refer to. Barring that, what about lazy people who don't want to develop skills - do they get a free ride at the cost of resources? Unskilled work is necessary to provide a semblance of equality, otherwise the contrast will become even more pronounced between skilled laborers and the unqualified.

      The best solution is to augment (rather than replace) aspects of life which can be augmented with technology and make progress.

  • My favorite toy... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by warpSpeed ( 67927 )

    When I was in 1st grade I loved used to play with my 160 in 1 Electronic Project Kit from Radio Shack! That was a cool toy. I made everything project in it several times over. I remember building the siren and scaring my sister with it. :-)

    I went to find it or something simmilar for my daughters (who are 5 and 6) and could not find it. It was disappointing. The toys (or what passes for them now) require zero creativity to play with. Fortunatly that does not stop my girls from being creative. The general rule of thumb in my house for toys is that they do not require batteries, with a few exceptions.

    We are going to start building model rockets soon!

    ~Sean

    • Amen to that. I LOVED that 160 in One project set. I ordered one off of eBay and it didn't work, and I was profoundly disappointed. Radio Shack does sell an updated version, but I don't think it is as flexible as the one we had as kids.

      Might have to buy a plain breadboard and experiment with that instead.
    • Good for you! I have a nine month old son, and our general rule is that toys requiring batteries are not welcome. This isn't because we're afraid of technology or anything of that sort.

      The problem I have with so many of the battery-powered toys is that they try to channel the play into paths intended by the designer of the toy.

      The toys without batteries are better at evoking play.
  • Here's the real quote!

    "I want to sell millions of toys, but what I really hope is that a bunch of kids who open them up use the motors and things to build something else ... then I'll have them arrested for violating the DMCA and use their inventions to my own gain! [mad cackle]"
  • by Whispers_in_the_dark ( 560817 ) <rich.harkinsNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Thursday February 21, 2002 @04:13PM (#3046952)
    I remember seeing a show on this guy a while back and being pretty impressed with his results. His machines could have their legs bent and broken and still manage to keep moving (helps not to bother with error checking I'm sure).

    I have to wonder what could be accomplished if the whole thing got more hobbyists working on it. After all many of his schematics are on Beam-Online [beam-online.com] and appear to be reasonable for amateurs to build.
  • What is analog about a spike fired by a neuron, pray tell? What is analog about DNA? Tilden should stick to his toys, IMO, because that's all he'll ever build. In the meantime, real AI researchers will conduct experiments in temporal spiking networks.
  • I wouldn't concern yourself with intelligent robots taking over the world. It is not possible for anything to create something that is smarter than itself. While possible to come very close, even as close as 99.9% of the intelligence of its creator, 100% can never be achieved. It is for this reason, that it is not possible for "smart" robots to outsmart humans.
  • Solarbotics! [solarbotics.com]

    couldn't really have an article about Tilden without mentioning another REALLY DAMN COOL provider of nifty little robotics, that are based on the same concept (B.E.A.M) that Mark Tilden is famous for.

    not for the lazy, though. most products are in kit form, which means you have to build it yourself. On the plus side, you get to build it yourself! :]
  • Little "analog" sensor-actuator robots... a little too reminiscent of the homework [mit.edu] I should be working on...
    • Re:Rod Brooks' Class (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Animats ( 122034 )
      The real originator of behavior-based robots was Grey Walter [uwe.ac.uk], who built two "turtles", Elmer and Elsie, in 1948-1949. Six more were built in the early 1950s. Read through those pages. What those machines did looks quite good compared to the behavior-based robot enthusiasts of the 1990s. They even recharged themselves.

      There's a Lego Mindstorms implementation of Walter's turtles. [plazaearth.com]

      People tend to read more into the behavior of purely reactive behavior-based robots than is actually there. That's why they get good press and make fun toys, but don't do anything useful.

  • This guy... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Soong ( 7225 ) on Thursday February 21, 2002 @07:42PM (#3048381) Homepage Journal
    ...pops up in the news from time [slashdot.org] to time [slashdot.org].

    Same old stuff. Same old rhetoric.

    I've met him, talked with him, and seen his bots. Fine for clearing landmines by getting blown up. The bots have "interesting" behavior if you're thinking "wow, with remarkably little circuitry they got slightly more intelligent behavior than I expected!". BUT, there's no evidence this scales. Maybe in the massively distributed case you can make a myriad of cheap things exhibiting instinctive behaviors. However, in the monolithic case, there has been absolutely no scaling of this technology along the route towards human (or even lower mammal) intelligence.

    .end debunking

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