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Robotics

Robotics

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Robotics

Course No. 1312
Professor John Long, Ph.D.
Vassar College
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Course No. 1312
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Course Overview

Robots. The mere word conjures up a bevy of mind-bending images pulled straight from popular science fiction tales. But robots aren’t just the stuff of entertainment. They’re real. They’re everywhere around you. And they’re transforming your life in ways you can’t imagine.

Ours is a world increasingly defined by the cutting-edge field of robotics. Today, we live among marvelous machines that can do things like:

  • provide support for soldiers in challenging terrain,
  • assist highly trained surgeons in performing medical procedures more precisely,
  • explore the harsh environments of space that astronauts can’t yet visit,
  • manufacture products with a speed unmatched by human hands.

In short, the future of human civilization depends on collaborative robotics: humans and machines working together. According to robotics expert and award-winning professor John Long of Vassar College, “Robots are what computers and self-propelled vehicles were to the 20th century: a technological revolution that impacts nearly every aspect of our lives, businesses, and security.”

Yet for all their seen (and unseen) prevalence, robotics remains mysterious to most of us. How exactly do robots work? What does it take to build a robot that can, for a period of time, perform tasks and make decisions with little human input? What are the most revolutionary robots at work today? How do we balance the technological benefits of robots with the potential risks they pose to pre-existing ways of life?

To answer these and other questions is to take an in-depth journey into an exciting world; a journey Professor Long and The Great Courses present in the 24 incredible lectures of Robotics. Using in-studio robot demonstrations, videos of other state-of-the-art robots, 3-D animations, and other amazing visual aids, Professor Long demystifies the world of robots and provides a comprehensive introduction to these intelligent machines. Whether you’re looking to grasp the hard science of how robots work or simply curious about the implications of robots for society, consider this course your official passport to an astonishing new world.

Intriguing Scientific Terrain

Professor Long’s course is an encyclopedic yet accessible introduction to one of the most important areas of modern science. From the concept of robotic autonomy to the inner workings of sensors to the intriguing possibilities of the future, Robotics covers every major topic in the field.

  • How robots work: To better appreciate robots, you have to know how they operate. You’ll watch Professor Long take robots apart to demonstrate how they work using actuators, controllers, and other key parts; discover how roboticists design robots using insights from animal and human behavior; and even learn DIY skills for building your own robot.
  • Where robots work: Many lectures focus on the wide range of environments and real-world scenarios where robots are already proving to be indispensable to how you live. You’ll explore robots in factories, homes, and hospitals; in the air, on land, and under the sea; on mission-critical battlefields and awe-inspiring voyages to distant planets.
  • Robots and our future: With so many robots around us, it seems like the future is already here. So what do the next decades have in store? Swarm robots, humanoid robots, robots that learn from each other, and even self-reproducing robots are just some of the many topics you’ll uncover as Professor Long explains the latest research in robotics.

As you proceed through this course, you’ll also get a look at some of the major ideas and ethical dilemmas involved in the world of robotics.

  • Trade-offs: Robots can’t do everything well. One universal lesson about robot bodies is that there are always trade-offs involved in designing them (such as building a robot for maneuverability instead of efficiency).
  • The Three Laws of Robotics: Isaac Asimov’s famous principles emphasize that robots may in no way injure humans. So how are these laws compromised (or circumvented) by military robots designed to target and eliminate human threats?
  • The uncanny valley: Developed in the 1970s, this hypothesis proposes that as robots become more human in appearance, our affinity for them grows. But once robots appear too human, they simply become disturbing.

Fascinating Robots of Today—and Tomorrow

Of course, the most enjoyable part of Robotics is the robots themselves.

You’ll get the opportunity to meet, learn about, and even witness in action an amazing roster of robots that are transforming our everyday lives. Robots that are simple and complex, large and small; robots that work on land, that hover in the air, that swim underwater; robots that work in our homes, our factories, our hospitals; robots that clean rooms and mow lawns and even perform surgery.

  • Roomba: This popular home robot cleans floors by using infrared sensors to detect walls and a homing beacon to return it to its charging station. The design trade-off with a robot like Roomba is that while it can easily transition from bare floors to carpet, it can’t move up and over stairs.
  • Wave Glider: This robotic “platform” has solved two major challenges aquatic environments present to robotics. Since Wave Glider’s wave-based power supply is endless, energy isn’t a problem. And because Wave Glider lies at the water’s surface, it can easily navigate using GPS.
  • Robonaut 2: One of the most exciting projects in orbital robotics is Robonaut 2, a humanoid robot consisting of a head, torso, and two independently functioning arms. Its goal is to safely assist astronauts working in the International Space Station.
  • Da Vinci: A variation on the classic robot arm, Da Vinci is a tele-operated robot helping to lead the charge in medical robotics. This highly advanced robotic surgical system moves robotic arms and tiny hand-like manipulators inside the human body, making minimally-invasive surgery even less invasive
  • EATR: The Energetically Autonomous Tactical Robot (EATR) actually ingests organic matter for fuel. This wheeled ground robot’s external combustion engine uses biomass to generate electrical power—making it perfect for operating in remote areas for long periods of time.

Not only will these and other robots open your eyes to the intricate details of how robots are designed, built, and improved upon, they’ll illuminate how roboticists tackle everyday challenges and create technological advancements that are central to the way we live today – and the way we’ll live tomorrow.

Robots—Explained by a Brilliant Innovator

Transforming our studios into a veritable robotics laboratory, Professor Long lets you experience the trials and triumphs of robotics firsthand. Director and co-founder of Vassar’s Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory, he’s researched, designed, and built robots with funding from major government agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Small Business Administration. He takes you behind the scenes to show you what worked, what didn’t, and why.

You’ll also witness how robots operate at the level of the wire and sensor; how they’re built, taken apart, and rebuilt for different uses; how they’re designed using the latest technological advancements; and more. Packed with robot demonstrations and 3-D animations, these visually stimulating lectures are an exciting exploration of robotics at every level.

Ultimately, it’s all in service of Professor Long’s overarching goal: to make you more informed and engaged with this increasingly important technology, which brings together the fields of engineering, computer science, neuroscience, and biology. Robotics shows you how we have been using robots to transform our world for decades—and how, in the decades to come, they will continue to revolutionize our lives.

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24 lectures
 |  31 minutes each
  • 1
    The Arrival of Robot Autonomy
    Plunge into the world of robots with this engaging introduction. When did we start thinking about robots? What three components are responsible for so many advances in robot design? Why is behavioral autonomy so essential to the development of modern robotics? x
  • 2
    Robot Bodies and Trade-Offs
    Why just watch robots when you can understand how they actually work? Deconstruct a Roomba to learn the five functional categories of parts all robots need. Then, explore a universal lesson about robotics: because robots can't do everything well, trade-offs (such as simplicity versus maneuverability) are always involved. x
  • 3
    Robot Actuators and Movement
    Investigate robot actuators: the motors and transmissions that underlie all robotic movement. You'll learn about the early use of springs as motors in automata; how electricity spins the magnets that make motors move; how movement defines what a robot is; and different types of motors (including DC and servo motors). x
  • 4
    Robot Sensors and Simple Communication
    Intelligent behavior in robots is rooted in the sensors that determine how much robots know about the world around them. Professor Long demonstrates how sensors work to communicate across the electromagnetic spectrum, including through infrared (like in Roombas) and visible light (for underwater robots that communicate using flashing blue lights). x
  • 5
    Robot Controllers and Programming
    What turns a remotely controlled machine into an autonomous robot? Self-control. So where does self-control in robots come from? Find out in this lecture on robot controllers: the computer-like part of robots that uses sensory information to decide how the robot should achieve its immediate and long-term goals. x
  • 6
    Human-Inspired Robot Planning
    In robotics, the most important problem mobile robots must solve is how to navigate, or move with purpose, in the world. Here, learn how simultaneous localization and mapping (using internal models, beacons, and dead reckoning navigation) is the key to a robot's autonomy in both structured and exploratory situations. x
  • 7
    Animal-Inspired Robot Behavior
    Consider an approach to creating robots that's inspired not by maps but by the simple sense-and-act behavior of animals. You'll learn the benefits of behavior-based robotic architecture (including quicker reactions and stronger sensors), and see how simple animals including ants have inspired roboticists to build fascinating inventions. x
  • 8
    Basic Skills for Making Robots
    So you want to make a robot. Where should you start? Learn how to work with tools like multimeters and solid-core wires; how to perform basic tasks including stripping wire and building simple circuits; and how to "hack" into existing robots to get them to perform tasks they weren't intended to do. x
  • 9
    Designing a New Robot
    Move from kits and hacks into the actual design and construction of more complex robots for research or business. As you explore the iterative decision-making process used by robotics engineers, you'll meet intriguing robots including Madeline, the first transphibian vehicle, and RayBot, an artificial fish used for surveillance. x
  • 10
    A Robot for Every Task?
    Wouldn't it be great to have a robot that took out your trash or put away your books? Explore how robots are designed to perform specific tasks, and the choices roboticists must consider in doing so-including the stability of the workplace and the minute steps of the task itself. x
  • 11
    Robot Arms in the Factory
    Each year, many tens of thousands of new robots are purchased to help us manufacture cars, medicines, and other everyday materials. And it all started with variations on the robotic arm. Here, examine early prototypes of pick-and-place robots; consider the trade-offs between range and control of motion; and ponder how far we've come with industrial robotics. x
  • 12
    Mobile Robots at Home
    Advancements in modern robotics have made robots useful, safe, reliable, easy to use, and affordable to have in our homes. So how exactly do different home robots-such as vacuum cleaners like Roomba, gutter cleaners like Looj, and lawn mowers like MowBot-adjust to the unique demands of their respective tasks? x
  • 13
    Hospital Robots and Neuroprosthetics
    Hospital robots have designs and functions meant to tackle the complexity of the modern medical workplace. First, discover how robots like HelpMate and Da Vinci work in patient wards, surgical theaters, and other settings. Then, delve into the burgeoning field of neuroprosthetics, which use the human nervous system for control of artificial limbs. x
  • 14
    Self-Driving Vehicles
    Lane changes, off-roading, irregular traffic patterns-how do robotic cars handle it all? Find out in this lecture on the trade-offs (especially between speed and safety) involved in creating self-driving vehicles. Peer into the future of how you're likely to get from place to place, perhaps without having to do a thing. x
  • 15
    Flying Robots: From Autopilots to Drones
    Take to the air for an eye-opening look at aerial robots, from the autopilot features in commercial airplanes to unmanned drones that can deliver packages. Topics include the role of gyroscopic sensors and recent technological advancements that are extending the functionality and power of flying robots like never before. x
  • 16
    Underwater Robots That Hover and Glide
    Some of the most exciting robots on the planet are found underwater. Here, learn how today's roboticists have developed unique solutions to creating autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), like Wave Glider, that have overcome critical challenges involving sensors, power supply, and design to do things like circumnavigate the globe or travel to great depths. x
  • 17
    Space Robots in Orbit and on Other Worlds
    Find out how space missions have pushed us to the limits of what autonomous robots can do. Central to this lecture are several fascinating robots, including Robonaut 2 (a humanoid robot working on the International Space Station) and the rovers Spirit and Opportunity, who are helping us better understand the complex geography of Mars. x
  • 18
    Why Military Robots Are Different
    Explore the tension between semi-autonomous military robots and our need to oversee their safety and control. In looking at military robots such as the Predator unmanned aerial system and the Phalanx weapons system, you'll learn about the unique trade-offs involved in the speed and accuracy of action, and the ability to distinguish friend from foe. x
  • 19
    Extreme Robots
    Walking and running robots, whether they move on four legs or two, offer some of the most extreme physical challenges in all of robotics. What are the advantages of legged robots that make them so attractive to roboticists? How do robots with legs balance themselves and move around in different environments? x
  • 20
    Swarm Robots
    A huge challenge in robotics is getting robots to work as a team to do things they can't do alone. Enter swarm robots: simple, similar mobile robots that combine to generate complex behaviors. Investigate this area of robotics that's barely in its infancy, but has vast potential for scientific research, military defense, and more. x
  • 21
    Living Robots?
    Robots are starting to perform the core features of life, to the point where it may be possible to have a robot that actually "lives." Professor Long introduces you to robots that "eat" by harvesting energy; robots that "grow" by building and improving themselves; and robots that "evolve" by designing themselves autonomously. x
  • 22
    Social Robots
    Enter the brave new world of social robotics, where robots are built specifically to communicate with humans and other autonomous physical agents. With the help of the robot Baxter, discover how simple signals like spoken words, expressions, and body language can create a dynamic user interface between human and robot. x
  • 23
    Humanoid Robots: Just like Us?
    Have we reached the point where robots are becoming just like-if not better than-human beings? Probe this fascinating question by examining recent developments in artificial intelligence, robot bipedalism and dexterity, the concept of the "uncanny valley," and three imitation games (including the classic Turing test) to determine where we stand with humanoid robots. x
  • 24
    The Futures of Robotics
    Because it's a multidisciplinary field, there isn't just one future for robotics, but instead multiple futures. What could some of them look like? Consider everything from companion robots that can coordinate our activities to surgical robots that can work autonomously inside our bodies using updates from a "robotic cloud system." x

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John Long

About Your Professor

John Long, Ph.D.
Vassar College
Dr. John Long is a Professor of Biology and a Professor of Cognitive Science on the John Guy Vassar Chair of Natural History at Vassar College. He also serves as the Director of Vassar’s Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory, which he helped found in 2003. Professor Long received his Ph.D. in Zoology from Duke University. Internationally recognized for his work in biorobotics and evolutionary robotics, Professor...
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