Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Democratizing technology

A minute ago I saw a segment on CNBC showing some measures US troops will be taking to deal with Saddam and his potentially dangerous chemical weapon or other facilities. There's no end to ingenuity, such as bombs designed to incinerate or neutralize chemical or biological weapons where they are stored without human intervention.

What really caught my eye was a special purpose robot. It appeared to be about 18" square, maybe 6" deep, and was light enough to be carried and thrown by a technician. It had treads like a tank on each side, various sensors and remote controls and could be fitted for auxiliaries such as a shotgun. And it's amphibious - it "swam" right across a stream at a decent pace.

For the demo, someone threw it in a window, breaking the glass. The robot righted itself and proceeded to crawl over debris, up stairs and around various obstacles under remote control. If I remember right it runs about $40K.

That's the kind of stuff I went to engineering school to work with. As it was, we only had one real industrial robot that I recall, a Cincinnati Milacron T3 robot arm that only grad students and profs got to play with. Nowadays some !$@$ kids can put together BattleBots that blow away anything I ever got to work with.

And the computers! My first programming class was Fortran using punched cards (or if I was lucky, an actual teletype that was slower than a typist and loud enough to make your teeth rattle). Underclassmen couldn't use CRTs, and the command languages available made today's mainframes look friendly. Computers were such an utter PITA to use that I never ever considered computer science as a major. Little did I suspect that I'd be making a living with them not so many years later.

Calculators? Less than 30 years ago a four function calculator would set you back on the order of $100, and was slow, so I learned how to use a slide rule (a tolerable 10" plastic log-log decimal trig model could be had at a drugstore for about $5). People made fun of those of us who wore calculators on our belts, but the slide rule kind like a TI SR-50 was well over $100 in its heyday in the late 70's. An HP-65, which could read and write mag cards, ran about $700.

Oh yeah, there's CAD/CAM. I learned little rules for figuring out optimal ways to configure NAND gates to implement logic, or to design a mold for a casting to prevent solidification before the mold was full, or suchlike odds and ends. Engineering drawings were rendered with T-squares by students or by drafting machines and arms. But now software does all of it far faster and more accurately, and can even drive machine tools or other devices to fabricate items with little if any human intervention.

So here it is, two decades plus after engineering school. I have stayed reasonably current, but much of what I was taught that went much beyond the fundamentals is utterly obsolete. Talented amateurs can use computer and robot technology that was the envy of engineering schools not so long ago. Technical fields have been "democratized", and the results are fascinating.

I wish this process extended further into the sciences. No matter how sharp we engineers are, we can still use more ideas and we won't recognize every valuable application of technology. Sciences can always use more observers, and amateurs can help in various ways if mobilized (such as via SETI on your screen saver).

Given these incredible widely available resources, why don't we have more amateur scientists and engineers? How did expertise or knowledge in these fields become "geeky"?

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