Monday, November 07, 2011

Oh, the thinks they can think

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, innovation

Say "Hello" to your weight loss coach, named Autom, but you can name it anything you like. The people who have used one all named it, and became very attached.

This is a recent version of the automated health coach, developed by Cory Kidd of the MIT Media Lab's Personal Robots workshop. In a three-way test, of Autom, of a laptop that accessed the same database Autom uses, and of a dieter's diary (the standard method), Autom won hands-down, and the people using one were all very reluctant to let it go when the day came to return all the robots to the lab.

On average, we can keep to a diet for three or four weeks, so this was a six-week trial. By week four, half the people in the two non-Autom groups had dropped out, and by week six, nearly all had. But those using Autom were almost all continuing their program and loving it. The positive reinforcement of a "social robot", using techniques developed by the most successful human weight loss coaches, make for an unbeatable combination.

This is just one of about two dozen projects highlighted by Frank Moss, former director of the MIT Media Lab, in The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives. Each of the book's eight chapters delves into about three technologies or programs, with plenty of historical information to show how "enforced serendipity" and "no-barrier transparency" and other sometimes counter-intuitive principles of the Lab's operation have enabled very rapid conversion of wild ideas into useful products and life-changing programs.

As another example, the Biomechatronics group has not only developed more lifelike artificial limbs, but on the principle that "We are all disabled, just in different ways and to different degrees" (a paraphrase of Sidney Papert), this group is developing exoskeleton components that make it easier to walk in rough terrain, run long distances, or carry heavy loads, and not always with the need for a battery-filled backpack. Sometimes, just by changing the angle of attack a little, a component can reduce the energy needed to take a step or make a movement.

Hugh Herr, the head of the group, is himself a double amputee, but re-crafted his own prostheses years ago. When the author e-mailed him some time ago with a question, the reply came, "Skiing. Will give it attention when down from the mountain."

An effort that seems quite different, but is similar in essence, is the Opera of the Future group, which developed "hyperinstruments" and the Hyperscore program that allow even severely disabled persons to compose and conduct their own works. The program resulted a few years ago in the performance of a work "My Eagle Song", conducted by its composer, wheelchair-bound Dan Ellsey, and that led to his current career as a sought-after public speaker, even though he must speak through a synthesizer, much as Stephen Hawking does.

On a simpler note, Ankit Mohan of the Camera Culture group has produced a handheld device called NETRA that checks your vision. Such devices, if they can be produced for $10 each, could revolutionize eye testing in poor nations. Many cases of functional blindness can be "cured" with a pair of inexpensive spectacles. (By the way, I know how to check nearsightedness with a meter stick, which costs only $1. But the method can't check for astigmatism. Then again, that seldom needs correction.)

Then there is the CityCar, a foldable two-seater developed by the Smart Cities group. Three of these fit into a conventional parking space. Fully electric, they could form the foundation of a one-way-rental business model, such as that used with bicycles or small jitneys in some countries.

A larger issue is to design the city for which CityCar is practical. The car is a result, not a cause. The group began by designing the kind of city in which they would like to live, then designed a car to match. The two key innovations here are the folding design and the Robotic Wheel, in which everything except the battery is packed into a smart hub. In some designs, the wheels can rotate fully, allowing the car to slide sideways into tiny a parking spot. Push a button and in it goes.

The watchword at MIT Media Lab that makes all of this possible is the removal of barriers: barriers between disciplines, barriers of the quarterly budget cycle, barriers of black-hat thinking. "Don't tell me, build one and show me" is the mantra. Every student vetted to work on projects there goes through a mechanical training program in their very sophisticated mechanical shop. For an exercise, one student produced a running wall clock on the 3-D printer: hands, gears, weights, and all. One pass.

For me, a book like this rates 11 on a 10-point scale of coolness. Nobody else is doing curiosity-driven research. At best, researchers are allowed a day or two a month of "blue sky" or "bootleg" time, with the rest devoted to the short-term, product-oriented research that has taken over industrial America. Even longer term programs found at a few places are too product focused to allow much straying into the "why did that happen?" arena.

MIT Media Lab is a place we need, and a host of corporate sponsors agree, keeping it funded and letting researchers collaborate with the professors and their students (the sorcerers and their apprentices). It works.

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