TED Conference 2012: Way More to it Than Flying Robots

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The now infamous flying robots got a ton of attention from their appearance at the exclusiveTED conference last week, but there was even more impressive technology shown there. Here is some of the best:

Cockroaches Show How Our Brain Works

Discussion of cockroach brainpower with Greg Gage, Photo: Ryan Lash
By day, TED Fellow Greg Gage is a school teacher in Santiago, Chile. By night, he experiments with brains. Cockroach brains. In fact, he uses roach experiments to get his students interested in neurology and brain chemistry.

At TED, he took an anesthetized roach and sliced one of its legs off (it will grow back). He then took the appendage and placed it on a special meter connected to an iPad-based oscillator.

We could now read the impulses from the severed leg trying to communicate with the cockroach brain. Tap the leg and it will send a brief signal. Blow on it and the leg will send an even bigger signal. Turn music up high enough to vibrate and now you have a rhythm.

Perhaps the craziest part is that the leg will continue to try to send impulses to the detached brain for up to three days.

(photo: Ryan Lash)

DARPA Shows Off Technology

The DARPA hummingbird. Photo: James Duncan Davidson)
The military branch DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is easily one of the most secretive government departments that we know, so having Director Regina Dugan show up at all is impressive.

The focus of the talk was on innovation, specifically on how breaking the sound barrier and other discoveries wouldn’t be possible without taking risks. “We cannot fear failure and do amazing things,” she said at the close of her talk.

The best moment was when she unleashed a new technology in the audience: a robotic hummingbird. As she explained, the hummingbird is one of, if not the only bird in nature that can fly forwards and backwards, as well as degrees in between.

The small, beautiful hummingbird flew smoothly around the TED stage. It weighs about seven ounces and packs a remote-operated camera. I and several others wanted to talk with Dugan after the talk, but she couldn’t grant any interviews. Understandably.

(photo: James Duncan Davidson)

Create an Android of Yourself

Henrik Scharfe, right, and the Geminoid DK Mechanical Test. Photo: James Duncan Davidson
Roboticist Henrik Scharfe lost his parents in an accident years ago and, since then, he says he’s been on a mission to recreate the human experience in robot form.

The result is the Geminoid DK Mechanical Test, a long-term project with Scharfe creating another Scharfe--himself. Made completely in his likeness, the Geminoid DK came onstage and talked with the original Scharfe (Scharfe 1.0?) and us in the audience.

A blinking, chatting, moving duplicate of the original, the Scharfe Geminoid DK is as creepy as it is spellbinding. Scharfe is the director of the Center for Computer-Mediated Epistemology at Aalborg University in Denmark, and works toward the goal of using robots to help us better understand humans.

However, during his talk, we realized that he also expects androids to replace humans in our society. The TED presentation showed us how the flesh and the tech could soon co-exist.

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