Feb. 6 - The brains controlling the next generation of interactive, walking robots may well come from a laboratory in Zurich, where scientists are testing new algorithms on juggling machines. With no sensory help in the form of cameras or microphones, the robots are able to keep balls in the air with nothing but mathematics to guide them. Rob Muir reports.
To the casual observer, the Swinging Blind Juggler could be an elaborate piece of modern sculpture, or part of an intricate game. But it is neither. The juggler is part of an experiment to test mathematical algorithms that could one day allow the next generation of robots to walk. Algorithms are mathematical steps used in modern computing and other fields, to provide instructions for performance of certain tasks, or to bring control to otherwise uncontrollable actions - in this case the bouncing of a ball. Philipp Reist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, devised the first juggling robot. Its platform is slightly concave to keep the ball centred. Reist wanted to know if algorithms alone, programmed into a computer, could keep a ball bouncing at a controlled height and position indefinitely. SOUNDBITE) (English) PHILIPP REIST, PH.D. STUDENT AND BLIND JUGGLER DEVELOPER, SAYING: "The juggling robot to do this juggling pattern sets a very difficult task that seems almost impossible at first sight. And there our goal is to come up with an algorithm that uses chaos to efficiently achieve these juggling patterns" For the algorithm to work, it must compensate for deviations that would otherwise disturb the ball's flight through the air...slight imperfections in the ball's design example, or disturbances in the air around it. The Swinging Blind Juggler manages to keep its ball in the air without any sensory input from cameras or microphones. Mathematics alone does the job. For inventor, Flavio Fontana, the challenge was to synchronise the swinging motion of the pendulum to the flying ball. SOUNDBITE) (English) FLAVIO FONTANA, MASTERS STUDENT AND INVENTOR OF SWINGING BLIND JUGGLER, SAYING: "I think we can apply that in every dynamical system, everything that moves, it's always the same problem. You have something, you have to describe it mathematically, then you need to come up some how with a way of influencing it, these are the algorithms, and then you can control it and it behaves in a way you want it to behave" And both scientists are eager to spread the word. They take their robots to museums and exhibitions as often as possible to demonstrate the power of mathematics to bring control to chaos.