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In absolute terms, it’s not so amazing: they calculate at a rate perhaps 100 times that of the average person. Computers, by comparison, are millions or billions of times faster. Can Hardware Simulate Wetware? sophisticated artificial system—for example, an electronic one—can be made and programmed to do the same thing as the human nervous system, including the brain. This issue is controversial in some circles right now, and there is room for brilliant people to disagree. At the crux of the matter is the question of whether biological structure and behavior arise entirely from physical law and whether, moreover, physical law is computable—that is to say, amenable to computer simulation.

As I wandered through iRobot’s offices, I got a glimpse of another telepresence robot called the Packbot. About the size of a small suitcase, this low-slung machine moves on caterpillar treads and, like Cobalt 2, has extendable flippers that allow it to climb over obstacles. S. military’s research and development arm— is funding the development of the Packbot, which is designed to do reconnaissance and surveillance in environments where it would not be safe for humans to go. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, military officials recog- Kibbles and Bytes nized that telepresence robots could aid the search-and-rescue efforts.

A small window shows onscreen what the robot sees through its “eye” camera. Burick sets a model of the B9 robot from Lost in Space on the floor, and I turn the 912 to look at it. I click the “capture” button, and the machine adds it to a memorized list of objects that it can recognize. I back the 912 up, turn it around, and create a new behavior by checking a box here and making a menu selection there. Six clicks later I have taught it to speak a phrase whenever it sees the B9 toy. ” It is a trivial example of a powerful combination: easy-to-use software and easily customized hardware.

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21st Century Robotics (Scientific American Special Online Issue No. 14) by Scientific American


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