The Computing Community Consortium’s (CCC) latest Challenges & Visions track was held Nov. 3 at the 9th Annual IEEE Symposium on Safety, Security, and Rescue Robotics (SSRR) in Kyoto, Japan. The “outrageous visions for computing in rescue robotics” track was a success, expanding the awareness of computing for a less traditionally computational group — roboticists. (Previous tracks have been at conferences on spatial computing, databases, and operating systems.)
SSRR is a single-track conference sponsored by the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society that attracts about 80 researchers and students from around the world in multiple disciplines: computer science, engineering, physics, and even medicine. The symposium focuses on stimulating meaningful conversations and demonstrations to supplement and amplify papers and create multi-disciplinary partnerships.
This year was particularly fitting for SSRR to look at computing: 2011 marks the 10th anniversary of the use of rescue robots at the World Trade Center and SSRR was hosted in Japan despite the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. But more importantly in retrospect, the conference had an unusually large number of students attend this year and thus explicitly talking about the future of robotics, and the role of computing in that future, will surely influence the next generation of researchers.
The program committee was eager to embrace this opportunity as the conference was becoming too focused on mechanisms. After all, one of the challenges of security, safety, and rescue work is the need for knowledge, sensemaking, and adaptability — precisely what computing brings to the table. Despite the distractions of the earthquake and tsunami and the reorganized Japanese educational year, SSRR Program Committee Chair Itsuki Noda formed a four-person subcommittee representing the three regions (the Americas, Asia, and Europe) that he also chaired, and solicited papers. The competition was announced to have three overall winners, with the top three entries from the U.S. to receive travel money from the CCC. In the end we had over a dozen inquiries (buzz!), four submissions, and three accepted papers (two from the U.S., one from France).
The three accepted papers energized the conference by presenting a broad spectrum of computing subdisciplines –embedded computing, Metcalf’s Law, and programming languages — and by extracting lessons from the past for the future:
- The first-place paper, Structured Computational Polymers for Safety, Security, and Rescue Robotics, was from a Denver University team (Robert Nowrocki, Richard Voyles, and Sean Shaheen). The talk enthusiastically described how it just might be possible to build the “liquid metal man” in Terminator 2. It is easy to imagine how a flexible, paper-thin robot that might go deep into rubble, far beyond the 20 feet that can be currently searched with traditional procedures and tools, could revolutionize rescue robotics. Or robotics as a whole! The paper showed how transistor-like computation could be replicated in polymers and lead to artificial neural networks and distributed computing within sheets of fabric.
- My submission, The 100:100 Challenge for Computing in Rescue Robotics, won second place and conceptualized the value of rescue robotics using Metcalf’s Law: the more connections between decision-makers and robots, the more value. I argued that the current mindset is to create software systems to enable one operator to control 100 robots, but the real objective based on my ethnographic studies of disasters should be to have software systems that enable 100s of stakeholders who may not have robot expertise to interact 100s of robots and their data.
- The third-place submission, The Next 700 Control Architectures for Rescue Robotics, from Noury Bouraqadi and Serge Stinckwich from France, compared robot architectures to the evolution of programming languages. The title was a direct play on Landin’s 1966 paper “The Next 700 Programming Languages” which noted that at that time a new programming language was being written for each application, rather than creating adaptable families of languages. This is exactly the same situation with robotics architectures.
This Challenges & Visions session was definitely the most captivating — panel discussions throughout the remainder of the symposium kept referring back to the challenges posed by the three presentations and animated discussions kept erupting in the foyer. The one thing every attendee had in common was an opinion on the outrageous visions about computing!
And more telling, I’ve already overhead talk of submissions for next year’s SSRR Challenges & Visions track.
By the way, if you are interested in running a CCC-sponsored Challenges & Visions track for an upcoming research conference or workshop you are organizing, please e-mail us!