I work on developing an understanding of biological complexity and how we can create it, because the limits of software engineering have been clear now for two decades. The biggest programs anyone can build are about ten million lines of code. A real biological object — a creature, an ecosystem, a brain — is something with the same complexity as ten billion lines of code. And how do we get there? My lab works on this question of self-organization, using evolution, neural networks, games, problem solving, and robotics. And the way that we work on it is by trying to set up non-equilibrium chemical reactions in software which dissipate computer time ­ a form of energy — and create structure. Some of that structure we can actually make real in the form of robots, and although robots are much more exciting to cameras and the media than problem-solvers, games and language learning, our fundamental work is in trying to understand where complexity itself comes from, without a designer.

The vision that we're working on for robots is like that of the tool industry. There is no general purpose tool, but there are drills, lathes, saws and routers and other tools that work for specific purposes. The computer is just the engine for a robot, analogous to the electric motor. We will make very specific robots for very specific goals. They won't be general purpose Rosie Jetsons. They'll be something that might shovel your walk, clean your swimming pool, clean out the gutter, or vacuum one room. There won't be any general purpose humanoid robot for centuries, in my opinion. Where we see things going, possibly in the next decade, is towards a general purpose robotic industry that makes hundreds of different dumb, special-purpose machines — things as sophisticated ultimately as ink jets printers and ATMs, which are the real robots of today.

My definition of a robot is a computer program hooked to a real piece of hardware, working 24 hours a day and justifying the investment in its own creation. It may even put people out of work. In the case of ink jet printers it's scriveners, and in the case of ATM machines it's bank tellers. So there is some disruption coming, but the wearable/wireless upheaval is happening before the robotics upheaval!

But I've also been involved since 1976 with microcomputers, the very small computers that are now everywhere; they're inside your cameras, and they're inside tape recorders. Apple's new mouse has a super-computer in it, apparently! We're coming to the age of wearable computers in the age of wireless, and I've been waiting and watching that for a long time, since I fashioned a one-hand keyboard in 1985. I think the new devices like the Blackberry and the PDA/Phones are really the beginning of wearable computers. You've seen people with cellphone buds in their ears all day long. These wearable computers are not what the pundits and nerds said that they would be, but people are carrying them around all day on their belts, using them all the time, and they will evolve into something approximating the science fiction communicator, voice together with videos, MP3's, fax, and e mail. It will all be something that you live with all day long, and we'll become untethered as a society.

EDGE: You're talking about getting untethered, but to some people it might sound like an electronic leash.

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