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The Roomba Generation

06/15/2013 02:17 pm ET | Updated Aug 15, 2013

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

We can't stop there, so now we've got R2d2 impersonating a vacuum cleaner. It's a comfy solution for neatniks that don't trust Roombas home alone, and could be the first mind-machine we've praised God for that walks, feels, and learns as it gathers dust.

Theo Jansen thinks a lot, and designs stuff that walks, feels, and learns as it shuffles seashells on the seashell shore. His elegant kinetic-autonomic-machine sculptures are based on "eleven sacred numbers," so there must be God in there somewhere. "Strandbeests" made of PVC pipe and cable, have fins that walk them in the sand with the wind. This also pressurizes air in dangling plastic bottles that's the fuel storage to move them when there's no wind. If I were Steve Martin, I'd ask too "What is that thang?"

The Thang Revolution is entertaining, depending on what that thang is. In the film "2001, A Space Odyssey," "Hal" is happy to do his thang and do the thinking; that's what it/she/he was designed to do. But after this movie, we've got some fang time with the definition of life. Blame it on sci-fi, but it's strangely becoming reality while we're taking out the unrecycled trash. Life was so easy back then...

Jansen studied art and physics. He stated "The walls between art and engineering exist only in our minds". The late Dr. Leonard Shlain's first book "Art and Physics" documents art that inspired discoveries in physics throughout history. I had the privilege of working with Dr. Shlain, who asked me to edit his chapter on architecture. Apparently the publisher never heard of Buckminster Fuller, so architecture was presumed irrelevant and the chapter deleted from the book.

When I studied with Bucky in architecture school, I knew he was on to something. I followed him everywhere and read everything he wrote. Bucky had his own urban dictionary, and invented words like tensegrity. Kenneth Snelson picked this up and made "floating compression" tensegrity sculptures that, like Jansen's, were wind responders.

Fuller's biological interests are not well known. He studied self-organization in nature, and noticed two groups of cells in humans that uniquely self-organize. The tissue of the eye and scrotum expand and contract to adjust to environmental conditions, like Jansen's machines. Donald Ingber is another follower of Bucky. He has a molecular biophysics degree and published "The Architecture of Life" in 1998 during the digital revolution. He's credited for novel research using Fuller's tensegrity to define how molecules self organize into cellular formation. This spawned a zoo of words like biomimetics, nanobiotechnology, cellular automata, mechanobiology, autonomics, and artificial intelligence.

GPS isn't helping us with any of this. A popular decal on rear windshields identifies the driver as "lost". Where are we? What planet are we on? What is art now? How about life? Is this the End of the World, or just as we know it? Since it's come and gone, and we're still here, it must be the latter.

An English dictionary definition of "life" is blandly vague. Urban Dictionary defines it as "alive, not dead." Well, that's a start. Our expert etymologists further define machine as "apparatus," and art "fine." I've written for years, and suddenly spell-check is ruining my creativity.

This just isn't new. At a talk at the San Francisco Planetarium years ago, a presenter insisted there's life on Mars because it's got meteorites laying around. Now we've got a rock from the 'hood, and our definition of life is shifting fast. NASA declared in March samples retrieved by Rover have all six DNA components necessary to do the job.

What's Theo Jansen up to now? He uses 3-D printing that will create autonomous machine herds of Strandbeests that will be the new Rovers of the beach. They'll probably be looking for a job to make themselves useful. Here's a friendly reminder from Bucky; "Don't fight forces, use them."

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