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Advancing Robotics - Evolution

At some point and time, everyone is guilty of trying to start off a little further along than they should. It might be in learning a new skill, undertaking a new task or even developing a relationship, but we all have the propensity to skip ahead to "the good stuff." Sometimes it works out, as a matter of fact, sometimes is works only because we skipped ahead; but often it will bite us in the ass instead.

The real world is full of examples that show how skipping ahead has proven not only beneficial, but brought about results no one thought possible. Mostly, this has to do with people not knowing something could not be done. Science was always good for this, with theory stating something could not be accomplished, only to have someone who never learned that theory prove it wrong. Far more often, though, skipping ahead has the tendency to produce failure.

Cognitive roboticists and AI developers have been guilty of jumping ahead more than most other "rational" scientific groups. And we do it at the professional, academic, and hobby levels; only, unlike many other disciplines, failure is not recognized. Instead it is seen as a step forward. Well, yes, Yoda and Sesame Street have taught us all that failure does not really exist as long as we learn from it. Unfortunately, when you set out to accomplish a task, and you do not meet the results desired at the end of the task, it is a failure. It is not necessarily a bad thing, some failures produce something totally unexpected and, yet, miraculous. But it is still failure.

In the world of Artificially Intelligent Robots, we have been failing miserably since before the first transistor was invented. And this failure is entirely because we all have decided to skip ahead. Jumping straight into writing creative algorithms in an attempt to unlock the secrets of artificial life. Ok, not all of us, but in the research I have read coming from those who started at the beginning, they have decided to stay at the beginning. Or at least have failed to progress.

The problem is that this is still a very new science; and as with all sciences we build on the foundations laid before us. It is only that cognitive robotics and artificial intelligence have no real foundations. Just teetering stilts that a few people have thrown out to the masses such as Turing Tests or Neural Networks or whatever the latest AI buzzwords are. I've read the algorithms. I've studied the theories. I've followed the research. I'm calling it all a failure. Sounds a little harsh, but it is an honest assessment. There are no artificially intelligent machines out there. There are some that mimic intelligence. There are some that even learn to a degree, or appear to learn at least. But as for a cognitive machine... None.

And now comes the part where I tell you why. Cognitive robotics and artificial intelligence has a foundation, and it starts at the beginning. Evolutionary science. We have skipped ahead past single cell organisms and plant life to walking, talking, seeing machines; but we haven't grasped the basics yet. We need to start over, only this time, we need to start at the "real" beginning and evolve from there. Of course we don't have 14 billion years to evolve the field of robotics, so there are some steps that will be skipped, such as the slow hereditary mutation process, and instead we steal from religion and go with Intelligent Creation.

I have been extremely guilty of skipping ahead in my work within the field. As an example, I wrote my first AI program in 1992. It was a learning algorithm, and it did learn. A little too well in some areas, but not well enough in others. It overwrote the computer operating system eventually and died. It was a failure, and I have been failing right alongside everyone else working in the field, professional or hobbyist ever since; because I have been jumping right into the cognitive part.

Now I am going to take a step back. Well, 14 billion years worth of steps back. Or 6000 years if you are a "devout believer". This will be the path from the very beginnings, up to the point I meet the robotics goal set out as part of the You Design It project, a hovering robot that learns to fly all on its own. This is my task now, and I am starting at the beginning this time around.

Why I Hate The R/C Industry

Working in hobby level robotics you have limited choices when it comes to parts and supplies specific to the field. Of those parts and supplies available, many are over priced just for being carried by a robotics retailer. As a result, a lot of parts used in robotics come from the Radio Controlled industry. Point-of-fact, many of the manufacturers for robotic parts are long-time companies in the R/C industry; such as Hitec and Futaba.

The R/C industry has been around a heck of a lot longer than the robotics hobby industry, thus offering a much wider range of products and more mature technologies. This is a very good thing for robotic hobbyists, as it not only provides a larger source of miscellaneous parts, but prices tend to be lower as a result of the maturity of the technology and higher level of competition within the field.

The problem I have with the R/C industry is that despite its maturity, standardization is critically lacking. To get an idea of what I mean, we'll use a servo (motor) as an example. Servos come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, ranging from micro-servos to extra large servos; from nylon to metal to karbonite gears; and come in a variety of torque and speed ratings. These are all necessary differences that make one servo better for a given application than another. After all, you wouldn't want to put a lawn mower engine in a Ferrari; different motors for different things. Where things become a problem is that there are at least three (3) different connectors used for standard servos.

Three. And those are the styles I have used, I am sure there are more. No big deal, except when you consider what is needed in the connector to make the servo operate. Every standard servo uses three lines: power, signal and ground. Every connector out there for servos has these three, and only these three lines; but use different connector heads and sometimes different pin orders based purely on the manufacturer. One manufacturer might use the "Hitec" connector with pin order of power, signal, ground; the next a "Futaba" connector with pin order of power, ground, signal. Take a guess what happens if you connect up the servo to your robot wrong... To top it off, documentation really is lacking on the electronic aspects of these pin outs, so often you just have to hope their wire color coding makes sense (did I mention that they all use different wire coloring schemes?).

Far worse than the servo arena, is the power connector arena. In connecting a battery to an electronic speed controller there are a plethora of connector styles in use; again, based purely on the manufacturers whim. Deans connectors (or T-Plugs), bullet connectors (ranging across a dozen different sizes and styles), mini-deans connectors (also called Deans Micro), Traxxas connectors, Airtonics/Hitec/Futaba/JR plugs, and Kyosho connectors (also called Tamiya, Standard and Molex) to name a few. Yes, there are more. It is actually so bad in the R/C aircraft segment that about 50% of ESCs purchased will not have a single connector attached, just bare wire.

Now (because I work in the Information Technology arena), imagine how far behind computers would be if manufacturers were not able to agree (thanks to RFCs and organizations like IEEE) on standard connection types. Think it is difficult to get everything connected on your computer now? What if that mouse you purchased only plugged into one out of every ten computers correctly, and there was no way of knowing if yours was one of them until after you purchased it.

Early on, some computer manufacturers actually tried to buck the system and have their own proprietary connections and parts. They are now out of business, or call themselves "Apple" (before I tick off Mac zealots: yes, Apple has adopted many standards). Yet, the R/C industry happily chugs along without a care in the world, or a standard in sight. It is actually the #2 reason I originally left the R/C hobby, the #1 being price (which is a direct result of lack of standards).

What does all this have to do with the price of tea in China? As a follower of chaos theory I can probably answer that question directly, but instead I will say just this: I am thankful the R/C industry exists for the reasons mentioned in the first two paragraphs above. I also hate the R/C industry with a passion because I consistently have projects on hold while I wait for replacement connectors to arrive. Currently, that number, like the number of wires in a servo connector, is three. Three robotic projects that are on hold, waiting for different connectors. And that, my friends, is what is known as "a pain in the ass".