The Future: Print Customized Robots On Demand From A Catalog

There was a flurry of interest yesterday over MIT’s “Expedition in Computing for Compiling Printable Programmable Machines.” Read: customized robots on demand.

Professor Daniela Rus and her team at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) are joined in the NSF-funded project by a UPenn team led by Professor Vijay Kumar and Associate Professor Rob Wood from Harvard. Together the group are devising a system whereby a person could think of some high-level functionality, and work through an interface in a retail environment to print out a machine that accomplishes that goal.

Let’s flesh that out a bit. Suppose, for example, that the screws on your kitchen cabinet doors are perennially loose. You think, “I need a little guy to move around once a week, find the loose screws, and tighten them.”

Unless you’re a robotics expert, it will take you a prohibitively long time to make such a thing. But suppose there were a system that let you select the functions and physical dimensions you needed. Your selections would run through a compiler, the way source code is compiled into an executable, and a robot would emerge to your specifications. Of course, if you have a MakerBot, you could print it out for yourself, rather than head to a store, as PopSci reminds us.

This is a lofty goal and it requires a shift in societal attitudes toward robotics. CNET says Rus indicated the “device’s programming environment would only control the actions of the individual robots and be easy enough for a non-programmers to use.” Or as Wired puts it, they want to create a “one-size-fits-most platform to circumvent the high costs and special hardware and software often associated with robots.”

This sounds like Dreamweaver for robots, no? It’s less about popularizing robotics literacy and more about mastering the drag and drop. It’s democratizing the manufacturing of whatever fits the needs of the individual without requiring the individual to become an expert in something new.


More from Gizmagieee Spectrum, Digital Trends, MSNBC, Smart Planet, and Eureka, and cool video of the project’s first prototype below.