Tuesday, May 03, 2005

CajunBot, RaginBot Gear Up

Both the Advocate and the Advertiser carry stories playing off yesterday's visit by officials from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to the ULL campus to assess the progress of this year's entries into the Grand Challenge race across the Mohave. Last year UL's "Cajunbot"--a modified swamp buggy that seemed oddly out of place in the Mojave desert-- made it all the way to the race to compete against teams from private industry and schools like MIT and Caltech. It was, and is, a great underdog story.

DARPA is the storied source of funding for blue sky projects ranging from artificial intelligence to ray guns (really) is now interested in something they call autonomous robotics. The idea is to develop a vehicle that can navigate complex terrain without human help. So far its not been a lot more successful in meeting its ulitimate goal of developing a vehicle that can drive itself across complex, unknown terrain than the artificial intelligence projects were. But the point, often missed by unreflective critics of government, of DARPA projects like the Grand Challenge is to deliberately set tasks so difficult that they "challenge" the participants to invent valuable new technologies in the processs. This is truly one of those instances when the value is in the journey and not the destination. It represents a specie of risk taking seldom conceived in the private sector.

The "field" of autonomous robotics is actually an offshoot of the artificial intelligence research cited above. While we never got "brains" like Hal in the movie "2001" that we can talk to (and fear) we did get whole new ranges of computer science that form a substantial part of the curriculm now taught at ULL. Autonomous robotics actually emerges from artificial intelligence's failures--as it turns out it was easy to "teach" artificial minds to do things we consider hard (like math) but forbiddingly difficult to do thins we consider a no-brainer--like walk across a new room or navigate 200 miles of open terrain in a jeep.

The participation of ULL in the DARPA challenge (and LITE, and, of course, our proposed fiber-optic network) serves notice to the world that folks in Lafayette can participate in technological challenges at and beyond the bleeding edge. We needn't take a back seat to anyone. And won't.

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