DRIVING SCHOOL ON MARS
Television critics will tell you that The Bionic Woman was just another cheesy '70s sci-fi series, but for Ayanna Howard it was a springboard to a career. When she was 12 years old, she became so captivated by the show's cyborg premise that she started reading books that reaffirmed the concept of integrating machines with humans. A thousand reruns and an electrical-engineering Ph.D. later, she's creating robots that think like humans for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "The Bionic Woman showed real, brilliant people giving life through bionics," says Howard, now 32. "I figured I could do it too." After detouring from artificial limbs to artificial intelligence, Howard is currently developing software that will enable J.P.L.'s forthcoming Mars probes to choose their landing sites and navigate the Martian surface by mimicking the way a human might handle the job. Her "neural network" reacts the same way humans do when facing rugged terrain, avoiding steep grades and accelerating through straightaways.
"People always look for the straightest, clearest path, so that's what we map to the robot," she says. The early result is SmartNav, a rover the size of a lawn mower that is controlled by a neural network capable of distinguishing sand, concrete and gravel. On Mars, such networks could keep rovers exploring rather than waiting for instructions.
Howard has always been clear about her own path. Her parents ran a company in Pasadena, Calif., that engineered railroad-signal components. Their work inspired her to learn to solder and familiarize herself with machine parts. Three years ago, hoping to encourage others to follow in her footsteps, Howard launched a math-and-science mentoring program for at-risk junior high school girls. Fighting cultural pressures takes time; one talented math student told Howard she planned to be a hair stylist. Still, Howard hopes the program will help steer more young women into robotics, a field she says that within a decade will produce robots that mimic human thought processes. "This isn't about mechanics," says Howard. "It's about creating something new, something like us but different something that can live." --By Dan Cray
THE SWARM KEEPER
Metal Insects On Wheels
When James McLurkin was a high school junior on Long Island, N.Y., he built his first robot: a toy car that he rigged with a keypad, an LED display and a squirt gun. Then he programmed the unit to travel to the next room and "engage the target." His parents the target in question got a good soaking.
McLurkin, 32, has come a long way since that first machine. Now a graduate student in computer science at M.I.T., the young scientist is on the forefront of developing "swarmbots"--packs of dozens of small robots that communicate with one another and work in harmony to complete an assignment. They have no centralized command system and can cover vast terrain; if one is destroyed, others fill in. His 112 titanium robots resemble small car batteries on wheels. McLurkin is working with a team at iRobot, a private Boston-based robotics firm, to find practical uses for his fleet of 4-in.-high units. McLurkin envisions that his swarm could map terrain on Mars or search for survivors in the aftermath of an earthquake. "If you want to know what's inside a cave, you can send in an Army Ranger or an army of robots," he says of his fleet's lifesaving potential. Rodney Brooks, director of M.I.T.'s artificial-intelligence lab, says the scope of McLurkin's work is remarkable. "A lot of us have worked on insect-robot things," he says, "but James has taken the technology farther than anyone else." Indeed, last year McLurkin won the prestigious Lemelson-M.I.T. prize for inventiveness and creativity.
McLurkin's machines were inspired by nature. As an undergraduate at M.I.T., he became interested in ants and kept a terrarium full of them on his desk. The decentralized nature of ant colonies gave him a model for his robots. "I worked on the notion of using virtual pheromones [the biochemical scents that some animals use to communicate]," he says. "As one robot gathers knowledge, it spreads it to its neighbors, and they spread it to their neighbors." Despite his success, McLurkin still gets a high-schoolish kick out of playing with his robots. Attendees at an iRobot holiday party two years ago were treated to the sounds of the first ever swarm orchestra. McLurkin had programmed the robots to arrange themselves into different instrument sections and play Christmas carols. What could be next? "A swarm marching band," he chuckles. "They'll play American standards." --By Carolina A. Miranda