Friday, January 30, 2004

Integrating the Physical and Computational Worlds

An agent is an abstract computer science term that means a black-box that takes a set of percepts from the environment, perfrom some "computation", and exerts a set of actions on that environment. This is an useful concept to talk about AI-like entities or just about anything (even non-AI things) in an useful theoretical framework.

Embodiment is when an agent resides inside a body of some kind within an environment. This means that the agent is part of the environment and has the restrictions and perspectives imparted by that body. Not all agents are embodied.

A robot is an example of a physically embodied agent, i.e. it does not live in a simulated world. However, we have now stepped over a line and have left the world of pure computer science, creeping into the difficult and unpleasant world of mechanics, dynamics, frictions, electronics, gases, other embodied agents, societies, uncertainty, noise, and risk.

I believe that in order to truly understand how one can live and act within a world, we need a truly integrative approach to the physical world and the transportation and processing of information. Simply calling this work "interdisciplinary" is just a marketing term that does not convey the full revolution I am proposing.

Animals and human beings have achieved a careful and articulate equilibrium between processing information and interacting with the world with naturally-formed mechanical bodies gradually created over millions of years of evolution. To understand not the details of the parts of humans and animals, but the general underlying principles of living and surviving in the world to accomplish tasks, we must derive a general theory that closely couples a theory of information with a theory of the physical world.

This might lead some of you into fuzzy philosophical questions, which I will not address here. However, one that I believe that may be answered as we continue our work is the following:

What is information? What is computation?

How are these questions related? Are they the same? What vocabularly are we missing?

I don't claim to know the answer to these questions, but I hope that as we proceed to stack the building blocks of our theory, we may gradually achieve a glimpse of these notions.

Thursday, January 29, 2004

Robotic Basics

In order to create a general theory of robotics, you need to get down to simple basics of what exactly a robot is. I will ignore all the pop culture perception of robots and create my own working definition:

A robot is an autonomous machine composed of sensors and effectors that acts in the real-world to accomplish a task.

What's interesting is what this throws out as not being a robot. Sensorless mechanical arms are not included in this definition. A robot should perceive its environment some way and act on it.

Programs that run in simulated worlds are not robots. In order to classify something as a robot, it must exist in the real physical world and deal with that world's uncertainties, noise, change, lack of structure, and physical laws. Although simulations can be used in design of robots, they must always be verified in the real world.

Autonomous machines that have no tasks to accomplish are not robots (although they could be if you defined their task as "wandering aimlessly"). This is just a working definition that makes our analysis much easier if we always assume there is a goal.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Mars Rover to Land Tonight

The Opportunity mars rover lands tonight Saturday, 24th at 9pm PST. (Sunday 25th at 5am UTC)

Apparently the command center at JPL in Pasadena will be televised on C-SPAN for those of you who have cable television.

Nasa TV is also available on the web, but it will probably be very crowded around that time.

In the meantime, check out this awesome satellite picture animation of Spirit's landing zone.

Since Spirit has been having problems, there's been a slight shift in the plans. The team was originally going to split up with the experts shifting their attention to Opportunity's deployment and Spirit continuing it's exploration. However, since they still don't know what happened with Spirit, most of the experts are still working on it.

They don't want the same thing that happened to Spirit to happen to Opportunity, so it will be deployed much more slowly and wait for Spirit's diagnosis before taking much action.