Predicting the Future of Robotics with TRIZ

M-block

Image borrowed from Victor’s Stuff

TRIZ is a much less fashionable approach to innovation than, say, design thinking, but it does have a pleasing Russian moniker: теория решения изобретательских задач, or theory of inventive problem solving to English speakers.

TRIZ was developed by Genrich Altshuller, who analysed enormous numbers of patents, looking for repeating patterns in how engineers solved problems. From these, Altshuller developed several tools to help engineers solve problems more efficiently.

These include a ‘contradiction matrix’ and a set of ‘inventive principles’ which work together to prompt the brain into finding efficient ways to solve problems.

For example, something that must be both strong and lightweight is a contradiction: making things stronger often involves adding material. Entering these requirements into the contradiction matrix points to relevant principles, such as composite materials, or disposable parts.

Also from his study of patents, Altshuller developed eight trends that illustrate how many technologies evolve over time. One trend shows that while inventions often start as an immobile solid, the next generation is flexible, and the one after that is often a liquid or gas form – eventually the same problem may solved with a type of field.

To take a simple example (from Karen Gadd’s TRIZ for Engineers), blackboard pointers were originally rigid sticks, then developed joints to become hinged or telescopic devices, before (I think they skipped the liquid or gas phase) finally becoming electrical field devices in the shape of laser pointers.

Immobile System → Jointed → Many Joints → Fully Elastic → Liquid / Gas → Field

Does this trend help us predict the future of robotics?

In the late 30s, the Westinghouse Electric Corporation built an ungainly robot called Elektro, which was certainly pretty immobile (though it could smoke cigarettes). In ’54, a robot called the Unimate, which had the first jointed arm, was developed for General Motors. Modern industrial robots are now multi-jointed, and some androids appear completely flexible.

Perhaps with modular robots, such as MIT’s M-Blocks – which assemble themselves like jumping beans into the most appropriate shape for a specific task – we’re seeing the beginning of a more mature phase of robotics.

As modular robots develop and miniaturise, might we see nanoscale (a nanometre is 1,000,000mm) M-Blocks, so small they effectively form a robotic ‘field’ that can assemble itself into the most appropriate shape for the task at hand?

Public Technology

Brains

Image of The Brains Trust borrowed from the BBC

“There’s no think tank for technology in the UK” someone said to me once.

They were right. There are think tanks with political leanings, like IPPR or Policy Exchange, there are think tanks for some of the big policy areas, such as RUSI or The Kings Fund, and there are think tanks about the processes of government itself, like the Institute for Government.

There is at least one tech think tank in the US, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, who “formulate and promote public policies to advance technological innovation and productivity”. Perhaps the closest thing in the UK are academic research groups such as SPRU and the OII, or Demos’s social media project.

Why are think tanks important? In their lesser moments their ideas are obscure and superficially evidenced, funded by murky sponsorship deals. In their better moments they make new ideas viable, test them with rigorous research and raise levels of public understanding and debate on important issues.

Astronomer and science writer Carl Sagan wrote in 1996:

We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster.

There are an abundance of technological trends: big data, machine learning, the internet of things… One that’s particularly interesting – for the questions it raises and the future it suggests – is the future of people and technology: human enhancement, robots replacing workers, the changing relationship between people and machines.

That’s what this blog is about. Providing news reports on developments in personal technology; analyses of new products and prostheses; interviews with experts and so on. It’s not a think tank, it’s just a blog – but like a think tank it does hope to spread ideas and provoke thought.