I have to admit, I'm a sucker for geeks. I know nothing about James McLurkin, except what he told us during his "Robot Swarms" speech at IdeaFestival, but I spent the rest of the festival looking for him, hoping to have the chance just to say hi and to tell him how much I loved his demonstration. The whole time he was speaking, I thought: "I just want to be friends with this guy..." Or maybe I'm censoring myself a bit; maybe I was really thinking: "Is he married? Does he have a girlfriend? How hard would it be to have a long distance relationship with someone in Boston? My family lives just outside of Boston..." You get the idea.
McLurkin's speech was entitled: "Dances with Robots-- The Story of one Engineer, 112 Little Robots, and the Toys, Insects, and Star Wars Movies that Made it all Possible."
First of all, the man worked at iRobot for years, the people who invented the Roomba-- a machine I've become obsessed with and yet do not own. I just can't fathom spending $200+ (I really want the Scooba because of my plethora of hardwood floors) on something that I'm just too plain lazy to do... but holy cow, if I ever win the lottery...
Anyway, back to the event: McLurkin works on distributive algorithms for swarm robots. In pedestrian terms, that means that he teaches a bunch of robots to work together to solve problems. An article in our local Velocity Weekly about McLurkin gave me a heads up on his research. He explained one of the practical applications of studying robot swarms as follows, using robot swarms to help with post-earthquake rescue missions:
that's a job that humans are either too big or too weak to perform. So (we could
have) a bunch of cockroach-sized robots that can look for signs of life and then
relay their findings to maybe rat-sized robots. They would analyze the structure
and figure out the right way to remove the debris, and then they relay their
instructions to a bunch of brontosaurus-sized robots who would then do the hard
work and heavy lifting.
During his presentation, he gave two small-scale exhibitions of what a couple dozen mini-robots could do. Programs that made them follow the leader compelled the mini-robots to sing "Hi-ho-hi-ho It's Off to Work we Go;" those that made them disperse across a plane called for them to sing "Into the Wild Blue Yonder." These tiny, stapler-sized robots had not just a command of obedience, but also, dare I say personality (albeit McLurkin's?). At the end of the presentation, they aligned in groups to perform a melodic and accurate marching band rendition of the Star Wars theme song.
McLurkin cited bees and ants (he has a huge ant farm at home) as inspiring his research into distributed algorithms. Essentiallly it is the act of dividing a big math/physics/science problem among a huge group of problem-solvers. It's hard to program one robot, he said, but he's facing the challenge of programming hundreds if not thousands of robots. Robot swarm technology could be the future of planetary exploration or even nano-bio technology.
My photos of his demonstration came out badly. So I went to his website to grab a photo. He showed this photo during his presentation saying: "Like all good engineers I was hatched from a cardboard box." It made me laugh. Ahhh Geek humor