This week we visited the Robotics/Artificial Intelligence exhibit at the MIT Museum to see how physical intelligence is currently being applied in technology and design.
In a strange reversal, the attempt to build/imitate a biological system also illustrates several of the key points of physical intelligence that we have considered in past weeks.
What goes into making a machine that can move by itself?
Whole Body Movement or Mechanics Isn’t Enough
To unlock the mystery of the cockroach’s ability to climb, scientists and engineers start with the mechanics—for example, an analysis of joint positions leads to blueprint for a giant robotic cockroach. Unfortunately, having the right structure is just the shell: the machine can’t even stand up. We can draw a parallel to exercise: Exercising individual muscles/limbs or looking at the body as form, (“keeping in shape”) is only a small part of the story.
Progress comes when the researchers look at the sequence of movements that go into the cockroach’s renowned climbing ability: the three sets of legs coordinate, one set reaching, another pushing and the third stabilizing, to allow the roach to climb over obstacles. Just so, physically intelligent exercise involves the whole body in coordinated action.
Evolving In An Environment
In the process of making a robotic tuna, the secret of its powerful, efficient swimming is discovered: the tuna’s tail flicks the water flowing off its sides into vortices that combine into jet propulsion, i.e. the tuna gets the water to power its movement-- a brilliant adaptation that mobilizes the forces available in the environment to make the tuna the ocean’s top swimmer. In theory, humans have evolved to navigate as skillfully in the gravitational field (our “ocean”). Unlike the tuna, our survival no longer depends on the efficiency of our movement. With that constraint gone, for better or for worse, we are often working against gravity when we move instead of having it work for us. A reframing of physical education might be to help us find the ease of movement that evolution has provided us.
The Key Role of Perception
It is not that hard to make a robot that can walk down stairs—as long as the stair width never changes. What comes so naturally to us after a year of life is one of the thorniest problems of artificial intelligence. From the first day, a baby is involved in complex social interactions, learning to receive information from the world and to respond and interact. Perception and response is the basis of moving, but to build this level of complexity into a robot still defies us. Technology is advancing in this arena, while in a sense, we humans are falling behind: because it does come to us so naturally, we neglect to develop it, or exercise it, and so don’t preserve this amazing ability. This makes up the third aspect of physically intelligent exercise: a rich multi-sensory environment that stimulates perception.
We used the second part of class to refine the students’ posters that will be an important part of the final exhibit in a few weeks.