Monday, January 30, 2006

Why Lego Mindstorms NXT

I believe the success of the PC comes mainly from its ability to run any software you can think up. When the PC was first built, someone created a generic program to imitate a calculator. Doing more complex calculations required complicated programming. Then, years later, someone came up with the idea of the spreadsheet. Spreadsheets are still as useful as ever, but also spawned other applications like project management software and enterprise data warehousing.

The revolution of the PC was in part made possible because most software can run inside the beige box. The only changes in shape of the PC that mattered were the portability of the computer, and the Tablet PC, and even those do not require rewriting your applications, at least not in fundamental ways.

And that is a major difference with robots. With robots, it seems that almost every application can benefit from specific shape alterations, and ever shape alteration changes all the applications running on it. At MIT and many other universities, it has been argued for almost two decades now that building real intelligence requires real bodies. But those universities’ ongoing projects also demonstrate just how incredibly complicated robot intelligence is.

Lego has always been a great way to build and test mobile robots. Before Mindstorms, you had to be an electronic engineer to create your own sensors, and link them to a processor. With Mindstorms RIS, basic sensors were available, but it was still very hard to build robots that knew what they are doing. Rotation sensors for motors were not a standard part, and using too many of them left you with no free connections to add other sensors. That's very different from real muscles, that always provide feedback on their state to the brain.

But all that is changing with Lego Mindstorms NXT. Every motor can sense its own actions out of the box. Ultrasonic “eyes” provide the simplest way for robots to see obstacles without bumping into them. Both USB and a wireless Bluetooth allow external processors to improve brain (and advanced sensor) capacity of the robot. Experimenting with the microphone and sound should be fun. All in all, this is probably the first robot construction kit ever that is capable of building smart robots without requiring you to solder, or know a lot about mechanics or electronics.

I believe Lego Mindstorms NXT may be much more than an incremental step forward. I believe it will represent a qualitative leap forward, and will impact many other domains of robotics and everyday life.


At January 30, 2006 1:41 PM , Blogger Jim Kelly said...


You make some good points. I would like to add the following thought:

The PC can be claimed (by many) to have completely changed the way we live our day to day lives in small, but subtle ways.

1. I haven't called a movie theater in 5-6 years because it's faster to use the Internet to look at the schedule... (and buy and print the tickets).

2. I type the ingredients I have in my kitchen into Google... it offers me dozens of recipes that match.

3. I haven't bought a music CD in 3 years. All my music is bought (a song at a time) online AFTER I've previewed the song to make sure it is what I want (or matches the song I'm looking for).

My point is this: There are major effects from owning a PC/laptop that we now take for granted. But the small things fill in the gaps and make our lives seem more fluid.

Robotics will have major effects on our home and work lives... but it is the smaller things (maybe sitting in on meetings and taking notes and delivering the voice-to-text documents via email without our needing to ask) that I believe will cause robotics to sneak into our lives without any real discomfort. These young, future designers have some great tools these days to begin tinkering with and finding ways to make our lives richer without changing our overall lifestyles. I believe NXT is going to offer some real solutions to real problems and (isn't it amazing) the younger Mindstorms generation is going to discover them.


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