For The Love Of Robotics

Brooks Coleman is showing off his robotic arm, a knockoff of the device first deployed on NASA's shuttle. He tugs on a bit of fishing line and the different parts of the robotic arm go through their paces, twisting and grabbing. But there are serious differences between Coleman's arm and NASA's arm. NASA's arms are made for deployment in space. Coleman's arm is being deployed in his bedroom--an explosion of papers, old clothes and electronic gear that gives you an idea of what it must have looked like inside Fibber McGee's closet. Another difference: NASA's first robotic arm cost $80 million, but this one cost about 50 bucks, and is made mostly out of Styrofoam and balsa. Oh-another difference between the things that Brooks makes and the things that fly in space: Brooks's flimsy models almost always work.

Coleman is a tinkerer with no real job and, from the look of his scrawny frame, no real nutritional sense, either. He is one of about 30 Austin-area technophiles and artists who put together robots for fun, calling themselves the Robot Group. Other such groups dot the country: hobbyists from Boston to Palo Alto gather to show off their home-brewed creations and collaborate. They try to push the technical envelope, to spread their love of science, and maybe even cobble together the next Apple Computer in their garage. Some simply seek affirmation that they're not crazy for making robots--or at least that they are in good company. Folks like Glenn Currie, an Austin software designer who now puts out the Robot Group's weekly newsletter, first heard about them through an announcement of one of the group's periodic "Robofest" exhibitions. "I drove down and said, 'Wow-kindred spirits!' "

These guys-and they're almost all men-operate on the fringes of the robot industry. While there's a $500 million U.S. market for large, industrial-strength robots, mostly used on assembly lines, the business is only now recovering from past failures. The worst blow was a decision by General Motors in the mid-80s to cut way down on robotics-though automakers are still the biggest robot buyers. Out of the mainstream, robots remain mostly the stuff of dreams. The National Service Robot Association has about 250 individual and corporate members, most trying to develop machines that will clean hazardous waste sites, deliver food in hospitals or assist the handicapped.

Hobbyists had nothing to fear from the vagaries of the market. They were heeding a higher calling. As David Hounshell, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, says, technology is "rife with examples of outsiders making substantial contributions." It's a stirring roll call: Bell, Watt, Edison, Wozniak. Why not Brooks Coleman? And, like all tinkerers, they are always happy to put on a show. San Francisco's Exploratorium holds an annual Robot Olympics, which includes a competition in which machines run mazes. This month the Boston Computer Museum will hold its annual robot weekend, with workshops to show people how to build simple robots (kits just happen to be on sale at the museum gift shop). The event will be crowned this year with a robotic soccer tournament featuring players made in an MIT course led by graduate students Fred Martin and P.K. Oberoi. The small machines-made from the Lego blocks familiar to any 4-year-old-will kick, push or carry small balls toward their goal.

The Austin group is a product of its environment; Austin is a forgiving place. Apartments and beer are still relatively cheap. (The Robot Group's electronic bulletin board is named Bock, after favorite local brew Shiner Bock.) A college town, it doesn't press people to prove that they are geniuses and not crackpots. The Robot Group brings together an eclectic blend of technology and artistry. Its godfather, David Santos, is an artist who carves stone as well as builds robots. Because of this odd blend, the group boasts some of the strangest contraptions ever seen. Take the "bipedal ornithopter, " a spindly creation that ambles forward on bamboo chicken feet and then with a swish of its insectlike wings (and an assist from helium stored in its body) ... takes flight. Or there's "Pit Bull," a nightmarish, doglike contraption about six feet long made from bent sheet metal that thrashes about and snaps its jaws. (Coleman wrestles with it during performances of his experimental music group, Liquid Mice.)

Mind you, these people aren't just flakes. One, Karen Pittman, works at the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corp. (MCC), the industrial consortium that's trying to face next-generation computing challenges; she is creating a robotic band that listens to human musicians and plays along. Alex Iles is a Motorola engineer, working with some of the company's most powerful "controllers," chips that can be used to run appliances, cars or, well, robots. So while Detroit probably won't be putting brawny 32-bit microcontrollers into its cars until 1994, Iles has been helping implement the high-tech wonders into his group's home-brew robots. He lights up when calculating in his head that one such chip can manage more than 400 individual motors-enough, say, to give realistic expressions to a humanoid face.

The group's hardware smarts are no less impressive than the software. They currently put a good deal of energy into developing so-called neural networks. In neural networks, computers can learn how to learn by imitating the action of the human brain. The net consists of many "neurons," emulated through software or physically built-in hardware; information comes into the system and each neuron processes the data and passes its information to the next neuron; once a neural net is in place it can be programmed to learn how to, say, guide a wheeled robot around obstacles. Unlike most literal-minded computer programs, a well-programmed neural net can generalize from its experience-in the same way humans don't need to barrel down every road in the nation to become good drivers. Group member John Lovgren, now a computer-industry consultant, once explored arcane technology for MCC. In his spare time, Lovgren programs neural nets for projects like a self-guided blimp and Pittman's robot band. He does the arduous calculation he says because of the opportunity to blend technology with esthetics: "Artists push technology in ways most technologists don't anticipate. "

Above all, the group tries to do its science on the cheap. Though local agencies and foundations have given the Robot Group about $100,000 to put on exhibitions and carry on its work, the members stretch each penny. The robot band could be confused, from some angles, for a scrap heap--parts of it were rescued from salvage yards. Even some of the high tech is low cost: in experiments with robotic sight, group members are exploring Pixelvision, the Fisher-Price video camera for kids that records images on standard audiocassettes. Many members of the group have also pledged that they won't work on military applications-not that anyone is asking them to. Engineer Iles allows they would consider taking other for-pay assignments, however-- "but only if it's cool."

The Austin group takes its lead from Jacob Bronowski, the old PBS sciencemeister, who saw the natural union between science and art. The essence of both disciplines is discovery, providing insights that allow the rest of us to see the world anew-not just robots, not just science, but scientists as well.