Radical Robots

Building the Electronic Future Out of LEGO

And you thought Capsela and Lite Brite were complicated. LEGO--the Danish company known for its plastic bricks that nearly every American child has played with (if not choked on)--last week unveiled one of its most ambitious toy contraptions for the 11-and-over set: Mindstorms (legomindstorms.com), a 700-plus-piece robotics system developed in conjunction with MIT Media Lab brainiacs Nicholas Negroponte and Seymour Papert. The $200 Mindstorms kit comes with light and touch sensors, motors, and infrared communications ports.Along with a rising number of raucous robotics competitions and companies, it's blasting the mythology of cold, cruel thinking machines into oblivion.

What we get instead is somewhere between kitsch and spastic appliances: for example, a LEGO refrigerator-light detector, a LEGO photocopier, an "Epileptic Squid Bot" from the San Francisco-based Survival Research Lab (srl.org), even a man-sized robot--made by Soho company International Robotics--that's a member of the Screen Actor's Guild (it was in Rocky IV). This radical diversity of machines is a good sign. As programming becomes the Esperanto of the next century, these low-fi robots--shunted from lab to living room--are helping to reduce the mystery surrounding the internal workings of the machines that live around us. It's similar to the agenda embedded in the electric folk of build-your-own-TV (or computer) kits from a generation ago: master our devices so they don't master us.

In that spirit, LEGO is fortunate enough to have its own Edison. The company tapped Anthony Fudd, a 26-year-old MIT senior, to travel across the country this summer shilling the new LEGO product with his own ingenious inventions: a card dealer, a mechanical arm, and an ATM/candy dispenser. (Fudd is a paid "consultant" for LEGO and admits he's considering a job after graduation.)

But can a 12-year-old build this stuff? "The kit gives you a tutorial and it takes you through the steps" to create different devices, says Fudd. "It has a low threshold [of required knowledge] but a high ceiling [of what it can do]." The tutorial (a "programapedia") comes on a CD-ROM; kids program the robots on the PC, and then the machines run autonomously through a processor located on their bodies. Itall sounds great, assuming the preteens are willing to break from the immediate gratification of Tomb Raider to teach themselves physics and engineering.

Other robotics developers are making machines that aren't nearly so cuddly. A California organization called Robot Wars was well-known for its mechanical death matches, until human squabbling stopped the cockfights short. Survival Research Labs, the bête noire of the San Francisco police and fire departments, regularly demos its socially disruptive wares, like a remote-controlled jet engine (the loudest flame thrower in history, claims SRL) and a giant spring-loaded catapult called Hand-O'-God.

One of the most promising efforts in the works is the International Aerial Robotics Competition (IARC), which challenges college students to design the best search-and-rescue robots. Last month, organizer and Georgia Tech professor Robert Michelson staged the eighth annual IARC at the Hazardous Materials Management and Emergency Response (HAMMER) site in Washington state. Teams from around the world designed flying robots that could navigate a massive disaster site--overturned trucks, debris, and fireball-spewing machinery--to locate and identify bodies, both "living" (robots waving their arms) and "dead" (mannequins). Unfortunately, due to 105-degree heat, not a single team finished the obstacle course and some couldn't even get their rigs airborne.

So far, the application of this technology has been hampered by regulation, says Michelson. "There are no regulations for flying unmanned craft in the same sky as manned craft, so there's no insurance." But he's now under contract from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, a federal funding group, to produce, among other things, a flying insect for hostage reconnaissance. "It's supposed to be a fly on the wall," he says. If the LEGO kits are any indication, the bugs are just the beginning.


Fashion Hints

The buxom, oleaginous model poses in a zebra-striped bikini. "Svetla, pull the bathing suit out a little with your fingers so it almost looks like you're taking it off," instructs the photographer. "Do you think that's enough grease on her skin?" asks the makeup guy.

These are dispatches from "Sex Sells," a hilarious "deconstructed fashion spread" at the sharp and expertly tailored new e-zine Hint (www.hintmag.com), dedicated to "compelling fashion for complex people." Launched in April, the sartorially obsessed outfit is run entirely by Lee Carter, possibly the only Web publisher to be listed on a masthead as "editor/graphic designer/stylist." The Chelsea-based Carter puts out four new articles weekly, including an original fashion feature every Monday, with contributions (often unpaid) from local writers, models, and photographers.

It figures that fashion mags--heavy on the graphics to begin with--could find a cheap, easy alternative home online. But so far, Hint, with it's 7000 to 10,000 weekly visitors, is pretty much alone in the field.

Hint's editorial is just as arch as the photo spreads, with reviews of electronic media art like Nancy Paterson's "stock market skirt" (the hem rises and falls with the market), a study of the advent of stylists, and profiles of more radical designers. The standout is the feature on German designer Walter Van Beirendonck--creator of pants with a penis silk-screened onto the crotch--who unveiled his "kids" line by pairing young boys with "hairy, bear-like men."

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