Robotics: Robot Intelligence: An Interview With A Pioneer
Posted on 2008-06-06 @ 19:28:20 by r00t

I recently had the pleasure to conduct a short and informal email interview with a pioneer in the field of hobbyist robotics, David L. Heiserman.

Mr. Heiserman is the author of six volumes on the subject, published by TAB Books over a span of 11 years, from 1976 to 1987. These books describe, in detail, several robotics and simulation projects he developed during those years. Each was written and designed in such a manner as to allow the reader the ability to follow along and construct each project themselves.

However, the books aren't plans so much as they are guides. They form a complete encyclopedia for a compelling subject of study, which Mr. Heiserman has termed "Robot Intelligence" and/or "Machine Intelligence":

Build Your Own Working Robot - #841 (ISBN 0-8306-6841-1), HB, © 1976 (new window)
How to Build Your Own Self-Programming Robot - #1241, (ISBN 0-8306-9760-8), HB, © 1979 (new window)
Robot Intelligence...with experiments - #1191, (ISBN 0-8306-9685-7), HB, © 1981 (new window)
How to Design & Build Your Own Custom Robot - #1341, (ISBN 0-8306-9629-6), HB, © 1981 (new window)
Projects in Machine Intelligence For Your Home Computer - #1391, (ISBN 0-8306-0057-4), HB, © 1982 (new window)
Build Your Own Working Robot - The Second Generation - #2781, (ISBN 0-8306-1181-9), HB, © 1987 (new window)

I first read these books as a boy in grade school, and continued to study them periodically through high school. As an adult (now almost 35 years old - where did the time go?), I collected the set for my library. Along the way, I wondered what Mr. Heiserman did with his robots, and whether he planned on publishing anything more about them or his experiments. This interview and other email conversations with him have helped to answer these questions.

PG: What, and/or who, inspired you to pursue the research of machine intelligence?

DH: I saw the robots in sci-fi films of the 50s and 60s, and I wondered how it would be possible to build one.

PG: Was Buster the initial platform for your research, or were there prior (but unpublished) platforms and/or systems you used prior to Buster?

DH: There was a prior version in 1963. I can't remember the name, but it was strictly radio controlled -- vacuum tubes, no less.

PG: During the period your books on robotics and machine intelligence were published, TAB Books seemed to provide a haven for similar authors. Did they provide or do anything special to encourage this?

DH: No.

PG: Were you ever in contact with any of the other robotics experimenters (published by TAB or otherwise) during the period your books were published?

DH: No.

PG: Rodney seemed to anticipate the experiments carried out in "Robot Intelligence" and "Machine Intelligence". Were these projects inter-related?

DH: The books are pretty much a technology-based sequence. I had no idea about doing machine intelligence when I did the book on Buster.

PG: Did you ever bring together the software concepts developed in "Robot Intelligence" and "Machine Intelligence" with an actual hardware platform, or did you view the software environments you created as a better avenue for development of your ideas on machine intelligence?

DH: "Projects" was an attempt at hardware implementation, but I was more interested in computer simulations by this time. I never published my work for several weak reasons; one of which was that I was beginning to catch so much nasty flack from the amateur and quasi-professional AI community. I won't go into all of that, but let's just say I am enjoying some quiet satisfaction today.

PG: Why was the decision made to create the second generation Buster as a "hard-coded" robot, rather than continue with programmable machines as represented by the earlier Rodney?

DH: Well, I think it was because I was losing a segment of people who were not sophisticated enough to do any programming.

PG: What are the major differences between Buster as described in the original "Build Your Own Working Robot", and the Buster described in "Build Your Own Working Robot - The Second Generation"?

DH: Second Generation had better hardware designs.

PG: Whatever happened to Buster (I-III)?

DH: Buster I is somewhere down in the crawlspace of my house. The others were scrapped or given away a long time ago.

PG: What about Rodney?

DH: I gave him to a high school science class. I imagine it is gone.

PG: Do you have any current photos of Buster and/or Rodney (assuming they still exist)?

DH: No.

PG: Were any other later hardware platforms built (but left unpublished)?

DH: Rodney had a short-lived expression as a commercial product sometime in the early-to-mid 80's. It was the RB5-X, manufactured by RB Robot Corp in Golden, Colorado. I was rather well compensated for the work, but the company and my compensation soon evaporated.

PG: Are you still involved in robotics and/or machine intelligence as a hobby or otherwise?

DH: No. But I like to tinker with my own version of artificial neural networks.

PG: Do you intend on writing any further books on robotics in the future?

DH: Not as a hobby machine. Over the years, I've used my models of machine intelligence to play with ideas about extraterrestrial intelligence.

PG: Are there any thoughts or advice you would give to today's robotics and/or machine intelligence enthusiasts?

DH: Let a machine think for itself. Let a community of machines think for themselves and share their knowledge and skills.

But keep your hand on the plug.

I feel that Mr. Heiserman's work is still relevant for today's robotics hobbyist, especially for those interested in machine learning. His techniques and programming methodologies can be easily applied to modern microcontroller and PC-based systems. There are many avenues available to explore in this research, and Mr. Heiserman has forged a path ahead of us to follow. If you are interested in robotics, you owe it to yourself to pick up a volume or two of his books, and explore.

Andrew L. Ayers, March 2008

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