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An expanded Web version of segments seen on CNN

Scientist makes robots without computer brains

April 30, 1998
Web posted at: 1:50 p.m. EDT (1750 GMT)

LOS ALAMOS NATIONAL LABORATORY, New Mexico (CNN) -- Canadian research scientist Mark Tilden is treading a road less traveled by other robot-constructors: rather than using digital circuits -- which is to say computers -- he uses analog equipment to control and guide what he calls his "living machines."

Tilden bases his work on his patented paradigm for robotic control known as "nervous nets."

"A nervous net is to the human body the way the neural net is to the human brain -- in other words: head and neck optional," Tilden said.

Watch the full report
icon VXtreme streaming video (2:15)

Tilden's nervous net is essentially a self-stabilizing (mostly solar-powered) control circuit that guides the limbs of a small robot.

The robots' simple components, such as diodes and transistors, can be tweaked to cause them to react differently to various stimuli, such as light or solid objects.


In order to build his micro robots, Tilden uses dead floppy drives, parts of old VCRs and CD players, old volt-meters, pagers, toys, etc.

Human-like robots, such as C-3PO in the science fiction movie "Star Wars," are just a myth, Tilden says. "They really are fictitious creatures, I mean, right up there with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny."

Tilden says "computers aren't good for everything," and points out that the current computer-controlled robots are still far too prone to malfunction.

Tilden: "Personalities come out in these devices..."
icon 85K/7 sec. AIFF or WAV sound
Mark Tilden talks about his micro robots
video icon 826K/23 sec./160x120
QuickTime movie

Instead of looking at computer CPUs, he is taking his cue from nature, particularly insects. And he is trying to find out how they are built, how they move -- and how they adapt to their environment.

So far, Tilden has built more than 300 robots of 44 different species.

His goal is to develop a robot than can one day work without supervision, for example in security functions, dealing with toxic materials or working in hazardous environments.


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