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Aaron N. Tubbs

Dragon chaser.

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I seem to be grabbing Slashdot links today. I read about Deep Impact, NASA’s plan to fire a rocket at a comet to see what happens, strikes me as a scheme that only exists because some senator saw one of those cheesy movies and said “damn, we better figure out how to save ourselves from an impact with a comet!” I know that’s not the point, but it seems rather silly.

I think the idea of robots playing sports is fantastic. The idea of people putting a lot of time and effort into developing robotic contraptions to fight on a playing field sounds great. The point, for me, is not for robots to play humans … like anything, games will be solved; those with physical aspects are just a little further off right now. There will always be a place for human sports, if for no other reason than the weakness of human sports — we do not always make the statistical or tactical best decisions, humans get injured, humans do crazy things that don’t make sense but work great.

In fact, perhaps the most challenging thing of engineering a robotic team is making it interesting to watch — a system might quickly figure out that against a certain team that it can always run a guy up the middle and kick a 70-yard field goal. After this has happened six times in a row, the game loses any excitement, and the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Maybe the league rules would include something analogous to a restrictor plate, some sort of mechanical (or software) restriction or limitation that makes the game more difficult. I suppose they could require each team suffer corruption of their vision systems, virtual fatigue on more-used players, or a requirement that all decisions that are made go through some sort of randomized possibility of picking the less-ideal choice.

I think I would enjoy watching two robotic teams playing football (of the American variety), and would enjoy seeing how they change the tactics and programming over time to adapt to other innovations … but I’m not sure most people would see it the same way. I think to a certain extent it’s like the reasons why I enjoy formula one — or at least the old formula one, where it’s more of a technology battle than a driver battle. This isn’t to say that the drivers don’t matter, but all of the crazy work with ground effects, aerodynamics, exotic materials (for god’s sake, they are squeezing 900 hp out of a naturally aspirated 3 liter 10-cylinder engine … think what they could do in a NASCAR-size package), carbon suspension, ceramic brakes, computer engine management, computer transmission management and control, launch control, ABS, TCS, two-way telemetry, programmed geographic shift points, and so forth … that’s where there is beauty in F1. Somebody invents something crazy, like an axle on the front wheels so they can hook a diff up to redistribute torque under trail braking, that sort of stuff is all what makes F1 interesting. After a certain point, the driving itself is superfluous; most of the lines are inch-perfect; differences in braking depth are measured in terms of a few feet; the real war is in squeezing that extra millisecond of lap time out of an aero surface, and then doing it again when the new trick gets outlawed. I still think the current round of aero restrictions and engine regulations is lame, but I’ll let that point die, as nothing can change it now.