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Canny Robot Rocks Out to Audio Programming

Being programmable through headphones could keep Canny relevant for decades

2 min read
Canny Robot Rocks Out to Audio Programming
Image: MIT/Adam Kumpf

When we think about programming a robot, we focus on the part about writing code for the robot; we don’t pay much attention to the task of sending the code from our computers to the robot. To do that, we rely on things like WiFi or Bluetooth, or maybe USB or Ethernet cables, along with their specific software interfaces. And that’s fine, for now, but what about five years from now? Or 10 years from now? Fifty years? What are the odds that any of the things that we use to talk to our robots will still exist? To put it another way: what are the odds of being able to interact with a piece of 50-year-old technology (or even 10-year-old technology) as sophisticated as a robot?

Adam Kumpf, who did robotics at MIT a while ago and now does other cool stuff, is worried about this kind of obsolescence, so he took a stab at solving the problem with Canny. Canny is a very simple proof of concept robot that doesn’t depend on a depreciable communication interface, because you can transmit instructions to it using nothing more than an audio player and a pair of headphones.

“Canny has red, green, and blue LEDs in each eye that combine to allow a wide range of colors, useful for expressing a mood or indicating status while programming. Above each eye is a servo that can change the angle of the eyebrow to further augment Canny’s expression. A piezo speaker stands in for a mouth, letting the robot play a range of notes. When a user presses Canny’s button nose, the robot performs a combination of color, motion, and sound as specified by the current program.”

To program Canny, all you have to do is put headphones on it. A light sensor in Canny’s right ear triggers when the headphones are on, and a microphone in its left ear receives a series of high frequency tones that shift between 12,345 Hz and 9,876 Hz to encode data. A simple hardware circuit decodes the sound, allowing for data to be transmitted at between 300 and 600 bps. Basically, it’s like a super slow, super old dialup modem—but the point is that at any time in the future, as long as humans are still using our ears, it’ll be possible to send data to Canny.

Canny might not necessarily be the robot that we need 50 years from now, but that’s fine. It’s a proof of concept, designed to encourage us to think about keeping our current technology accessible (and relevant) into the future. We’ll all keep on building newer robots that take advantage of the latest and greatest interfaces, and nobody’s suggesting that we stop doing that. But a few decades from now, when the robot that you’re working on today ends up in the Smithsonian (which will have relocated to Mars due to the alien invasion of 2026), wouldn’t it be cool if you could still talk to it and get it to do stuff?

Kumpf has made everything about Canny open source, and you can get it all at the link below.

[ Canny the Robot ]

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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