Gardens Remotely Bloom for Goldberg, a Presidential Fellow
by Kathleen Scalise
As robots go, those created by Assistant Professor Ken Goldberg are low on the evolutionary scale. They don't look like much and about all they can do is pick up small objects, shuffle them into place and hold them still.
But this humble work is exactly what American factories need, according to the National Science Foundation, which named Goldberg one of 30 Presidential Faculty Fellows at a White House ceremony last month.
Goldberg will receive $500,000 over the next five years to make his simple machines in the hope that they will lead to more quality and fewer assembly line lemons.
"As components become smaller, getting them lined up correctly becomes a problem," said the 34-year-old Goldberg. "Imagine trying to feed a big bowl of Cheerios into a kid's mouth."
Despite this problem, "the set-up of an American factory is still a black art. It's amazing how little we've progressed," Goldberg said, shaking his head. "I've actually seen people sitting there picking out parts with their fingers raw as can be."
Goldberg knows what it's like for those workers. He grew up in a small Pennsylvania steel town with factories all around. He learned reliability is what matters and the tasks to automate are often the humblest, not only because they make for dull work but also because robots can do them correctly every time.
"Look at the problem factories have in another way. Let's say you are using Microsoft Word and certain word combinations cause the program to abort," said Goldberg. "That would be disastrous. This has been a big problem in American industry. People have rejected robotics because they don't work in all cases."
Based on overly optimistic projections about robots in the 1980s, "industry invested heavily. Now there are hundreds of mothballed robots out there," said Goldberg.
Goldberg and his crew are working to win back faith one simple device at a time.
He has two patents on a robot he calls the "kinematically yielding gripper." It looks like a large clamp. He shows how with two swoops of his gripper, a part on an assembly line can be arranged in precisely the correct position without sensors.
Goldberg the Artist
Oddly, Goldberg's robots can be found in places having nothing to do with manufacturing. That's because Goldberg's other interest is art. In fact, Goldberg has been getting considerable national publicity for his robot art.
In his current "tele-robotic installation," as he calls it, a robot farmer cares for a real garden in the laboratory Goldberg maintains at the University of Southern California.
The garden is a six foot, circular planter box surrounded by chicken wire and filled with dirt and living plants, such as phlox. An overhead growing light provides artificial sunshine.
In the middle of the box sits the robot arm that waters plants and turns soil.
Controlling the robot are computer-linked gardeners visiting Goldberg's World Wide Web site. They may be on another continent but can manipulate the robot with control buttons displayed over the Internet and can zoom in for live video images of the garden.
"A garden is a space where you have community," said Goldberg. "It goes all the way back to the Neolithic revolution. The whole idea of community formed when agriculture was born. So a garden on the web was another opportunity for a community. We wanted to see if we would have a reawakening of those ancient instincts of territoriality or sharing."
First he and his collaborators at USC and the University of California at Irvine had to decide what the rules would be in their garden.
"For instance, what if someone wants to plant their seed right on top of somebody else's seed, should we let them?" said Goldberg. In the end, they decided to let the garden police itself. If someone overstepped his bounds, irate fellow gardeners could send him hate mail, Goldberg said.
And that's exactly what happened to one overzealous visitor, who watered 10,000 times in a row causing a flood over the floor of the lab and heartbreak in the washed-out garden.
Goldberg is devising a new art installation now. He won't say what it will be, but he likes to tease. He told one eager fan he'd be interested in allowing people to drive a real car--not a simulation--by remote control over the net. "You do mean in a parking lot?" came the alarmed response. "Initially," Goldberg smiled.