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 ]
Evan Ackerman is the senior writer for IEEE Spectrum’s award-winning robotics blog, Automaton. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and emerging technology, covering conferences and events on every single continent except Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and South America (although he remains optimistic). In addition to Spectrum, Evan’s work has appeared in a variety of other online publications including Gizmodo and Slate, and you may have heard him on NPR’s Science Friday or the BBC World Service if you were listening at just the right time. Evan has an undergraduate degree in Martian geology, which he almost never gets to use, and still wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. In his spare time, he enjoys scuba diving, rehabilitating injured raptors, and playing bagpipes excellently.