Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

From TED, the Future of Robots: 4D Printing, Personalization and Adaptation

What’s next for robots? They’re becoming smarter, more personalized, more adaptive. But at the same time they’re becoming more complex and capable, they’re also becoming more basic. One MIT scientist, for instance, is trying to program physical materials to assemble themselves.

Ryan Lash/TED2013 4D printer Skylar Tibbits

The TED Conference in Long Beach, Calif., today presented three very different approaches to robotics: A safe industrial robot called Baxter, a cheap personal robot called Romo, and a research initiative into programmable materials such as self-folding proteins.

4D Printing

Let’s start with that last one. Skylar Tibbits, a lecturer in MIT’s architecture department and founder of its new Self-Assembly lab, describes what he’s doing as 4D printing. If the fourth dimension is time, Tibbits’s projects are designed to respond to energy and change over time. At TED, he showed off a collaboration with Stratasys and Autodesk to create strands made of multiple types of materials that when dipped in water fold themselves into pre-designed shapes.

Here’s what it looks like:

4D Printing: MIT Self-Folding Strand from Skylar Tibbits on Vimeo.

You can think of it as an extension of those tiny plastic capsules you bought as a kid at the dollar store that melt and expand in water and turn into tiny sponge creatures. (And if you never bought them, this analogy was totally ineffective.)

Tibbits describes this as a fundamental shift to create things that are adaptable and have their own smarts. “It’s like robotics without wires or motors,” he said.

Keller Rinaudo and Romo

James Duncan Davidson/TED2013 Keller Rinaudo and Romo


Romotive CEO Keller Rinaudo showed off the Romo, a product of not one but two successful campaigns on Kickstarter. The $150 device is an iPhone dock on wheels that uses Wi-Fi and computer vision to react to human movement and other input.

Romotive’s goal, said Rinaudo, is to get robots into everybody’s hands. That is: “To make a robot affordable, and it has to be something people actually want to take home,” he said.

To that end, he wants people to be able to program their own robots to do what they need. “We think if you’re going to have a robot in your home, that robot should be a manifestation of your imagination,” Rinaudo said. “The most compelling cases in personal robotics are personal.”

James Duncan Davidson/TED2013 Baxter the robot


Last but not least, Rod Brooks, founder of Roomba-maker iRobot and now CTO of Rethink Robotics, gave a demo of Baxter, a robot designed to work alongside humans in factories.

In the first day of the TED conference, Baxter had already been cited multiple times as a leading indicator of the potential for machine learning to augment the human experience.

Launched last year and priced at $22,000, Baxter can be trained to do assembly-line tasks without programming. It has animated “eyes” that show where its attention is moving so humans aren’t surprised by its actions. And it knows to stop when it runs into an object — say, if a human steps in front of what it’s working on.

Rather than displacing human workers, Brooks said, Baxter helps show what humans and robots can do together. “Lots of jobs need doing,” he said. “I am scared we won’t have enough robots.”

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald