For this contest, inventors will try to develop fully automated, off-road robot cars that can make it from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in 10 hours--or about the same time it takes a Greyhound bus full of gambling senior citizens to make the trip. Instead of two rolls of nickels and a pass to a buffet, the winners will receive $1 million.
Automation is also on the minds of researchers at Siggraph, the annual computer graphics conference held by the Association for Computing Machinery, which takes place this week in San Diego.
A consortium of European universities is working on the Smart-Its Project, which aims to develop sensors for everyday objects to assist people in daily life. One application would sense how many things are on a table or a shelf and and what those things weigh. Another would integrate intelligence into build-it-yourself bookcases so that they could warn owners when they are running awry of the instructions.
Have we really become so lazy that we need this kind of help?
"We bought it at Ikea," said Gerd Kortuem of the University of Lancaster. "It is about turning existing artifacts and actuating them."
Another group, stationed at New York University, showed off a prototype of a decorating application at Siggraph. It is designed to arrange the various pieces of furniture in a room at the touch of a button, using a complex network of light-emitting diodes, motors and position-detectors mounted on the pieces. (Right now, it's a model: The furniture is only a couple of inches high, but Siggraph crowds oohed and aahed.)
The munch machine
On top of this, researchers at the University of Tsukuba in Japan have devised a "food simulator" that reproduces the biting force that's required to chomp through different types of food.
So far, they have created two orally inserted devices for people who need chewing help--one that simulates the pressure needed to go through a cracker, the other through mushy vegetables. (Simulated flavor may come later.) Lots of people at Siggraph lined up to put the devices--which look like jumper-cable attachments--in their mouth.
"Taste is the last frontier for virtual reality," said project leader Hiroo Iwata.
Have we really become so lazy that we need this kind of help? Not entirely. These new machines are part of a trend toward what I call "extroverted computing."
Even the crazy gizmos dreamed up by Jules Verne and Rube Goldberg remain a mainstay of popular culture.
Robots and automation technology essentially take much of the risk and drudgery out of the daily grind. If a robot existed that could weed out junk mail, rearrange furniture or drive into combat carrying a bomb on your behalf, you'd buy it.
The movement toward extroverted computing is also quite common in the virtual world. Google made it much easier to search for information by using queries that were naturally phrased. In addition, researchers at Microsoft and other companies are working on applications that will track you down when an urgent communication comes in while keeping unwanted communication off your phone line or out of your in-box.
By contrast, suspension bridges, skyscrapers and space voyages were heralded with huge fanfare. Even the crazy gizmos dreamed up by Jules Verne and Rube Goldberg remain a mainstay of popular culture.
And who knows? Your future computer might even end up making wisecracks like the robot from "Lost in Space."
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas. He has worked as an attorney, travel writer and sidewalk hawker for a time share resort, among other occupations.