Saturday, March 10, 2012

Manual Typewriters to Flying Robots

I was thinking about robots the other day. No, really. I was thinking about robots. Weren't you?

Anyway, I watched a video of Vijay Kumar presenting his work on autonomous flying robots from TED. I was suitably impressed. I even understood about 12% of the technical talk, which is pretty high for me. I watched as the robots flew about, dodging obstacles and constructing frame structures. Then there was the big musical finale, a group of flying robots playing instruments, picking out the James Bond theme. It wasn't particularly good, but definitely recognizable.

It was the finale that got me thinking. What would I want robots to do for me? Certainly not play musical instruments, but what else? Well, load the dishwasher, for one thing. The task wouldn't be much different than in Kumar's video, as robots flew to a stack of magnetized Lincoln Logs, picked them up and maneuvered them into place. They'd have to be careful with the wine glasses, though, and they'd have to be sure to get out of the dishwasher before the rinse cycle started.

It'd be great if they could spot and pick up all the things we forget and leave lying about the apartment. I just found my pliers in the kitchen cupboard. I lowered a shelf, using the pliers to remove and replace a stubborn shelf support, and must have set them down as I began loading glassware on the shelf. I would never have remembered where they were, unless a handy robot flew by and spotted them for me. Same goes for my husband's socks.

Anyway, then I started thinking about all of the things that are automated today but were manual once upon a time. For instance, our cat loves to chase a laser light around the room and it's very entertaining for us as well. A few months ago, we got an automated laser toy. The toy rotates in an irregular pattern, moving the laser as it goes. The cat knows where the light comes from and tries to figure out how to make the light come out by herself. I laugh at her, but inside I'm thinking, "Am I so lazy that I can't hold a tiny laser pointer for my cat?" I don't really want an answer to that.

Dialing a telephone has been semi-automated for years; in fact, I haven't "dialed" a phone in decades. I'm old enough to remember having only one phone in the house, attached to the wall and with a handset that was attached to the base by a long curly cord. It had a rotary dial and took actual seconds to dial a seven-digit number. That's right - seven digits. Now you know how old I am.

And typewriters. I learned to type on an electric typewriter, but used an old manual machine in my first office job. Both machines had actual inked ribbons wound onto bobbins, and keys that could, on the manual machine, jam up if you typed too fast.

Let's talk about making copies. Today, if I want an extra copy of a letter I've typed, I'll print an extra copy, and in our home, the printer is about 50 feet away and wireless. A decade or so ago, I would have stepped over to the copy machine to make the extra copy. But back when I started working, our copies were wireless. We had to plan ahead if we wanted a copy, because we would use carbon paper, sandwiched between two sheets of paper. In fact, if we "cc'd" someone, it meant we did what "cc" stands for - we created a "carbon copy."

And I have to say it - we had to get up and walk over to the television set to change the channel - all four channels.

Of course, my son has always had a computer (he was teaching his fellow kindergarteners how to use the machines in the computer lab at school). We've had a mobile phone since he can remember. His world has always included these things and has never included a living John Lennon. He most likely doesn't remember a wall dividing Berlin in two or working pay phones.

It's not that I miss the old, manual stuff. I'd much rather use a food processor than grate a bag of carrots or potatoes by hand. I appreciate being able to call my mom from Hawai'i and have it sound like I'm next door. I love my hybrid car, my energy-efficient light bulbs and my plasma TV. But I also get satisfaction out of baking bread (okay, I use a bread maker) and knitting by hand.

But autonomous flying robots are pretty cool. Gotta get me one!