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Robotics as a hobby... and a way of life

The field of robotics combines many technologies and provides a challenging hobby for many Silicon Valley engineers.

Have you ever heard of the Homebrew Computer Club? I'm sure you've heard of the products designed by its members: the Apple I and Apple II, the Osborne I, maybe even the earlier Sol-20 (one of the prettiest little personal computers ever; I have a beautiful example myself).

Wikipedia reports that the Homebrew Computer Club stopped meeting in "roughly 1977"-- about 30 years ago. But a small part of it survives. Some of the people in the Homebrew Computer Club spun off the Homebrew Robotics Club, and that club still meets regularly.

I try to attend meetings when I can, but I've been missing a lot of meetings since I took this job at Montalvo Systems. I missed the meeting this month; blogging about it sorta helps make up for that.

HBRC members are still mostly engineers and programmers. Some are parents and kids, which bodes well for the long-term health of the hobby as well as the long-term supply of workers for high-tech industries. Club projects involve everything from simple wheeled robots that can drive around on a tabletop without falling off the edge to GPS-equipped machines like small versions of the DARPA Grand Challenge vehicles. Pretty much every robot has a microprocessor brain; some have many microprocessors, each in charge of some subsystem.

The connection between microprocessors and robotics is not mere coincidence. Microprocessors revolutionized robot design. It was certainly a delayed effect, since microprocessors had to grow up for a while before they surpassed the previous methods for robot control. But when this happened, more or less in the 1990s, microprocessors put robots on the Moore's Law path.

No longer must robots remain tethered to industrial minicomputers, slaving away day after day to build Honda automobiles. In fact, Honda itself is making robots that can walk off the job if they want to.

Of course, they're not smart enough to want to, which brings me to the final ingredient required for intelligent, independent robots: synthetic brains. PC Magazine and CNET covered the recent Cognitive Computing conference, where researchers described projects to reimplement the brain in silicon. Not merely duplicate the results of thought, but the process itself.

I attended a presentation on this subject by Jim Burr at the 1993 World Science Fiction Convention in San Francisco. If I recall correctly, Burr projected that it should become possible to implement an electronic copy of the human brain, in a size that would fit inside a human head, consuming a similar amount of power, by 2050... and built in silicon, which switches far faster than biological neurons, the electronic version will be a thousand times smarter.

Moore's Law has probably slowed down a little since then, and it might slow down more, but it's still possible some of us will live to see this achievement. What happens then, I can't say, but maybe robots with silicon brains will start an Organic Humans Club...