Current Research IV
Erik Demaine, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, MIT; Daniela Rus, MIT Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Associate Director of CSAIL; ; Scott Aaronson, Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, MIT; Victor Zue, ScD '76, Delta Electronics Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science; Director, CSAIL
Description: Research can be serious fun, as these three scientists demonstrate in wide"ranging presentations encompassing sculpture, robotics and even time travel.
Forget the swan"shaped napkins served up by restaurants. Erik Demaine's origami involves thousands of folds and a year's worth of labor, and leaps from art to math and back. In these creations, Demaine finds infinite challenge and engagement. He shows examples of pleated folding in which hyperbolic paraboloids link up, via complex algorithms into intriguing new geometries. Demaine says, "On the scientific side, I want to know what the paper is doing," so he builds simulations using photographs of real paper, ending up with a virtual model of a physical piece of paper, to generate more paper origami creations. (Demaine's work, sometimes accomplished in association with his father, resides in collections of the world's finest art museums.) When Demaine is stuck with a math problem, he "can just build a sculpture to illustrate why the math problem is hard." He also uses mathematics to figure out how to build a sculpture. He recommends this approach because it offers "the flexibility to jump back and forth between worlds."
Daniela Rus has been developing an origami free of human labor, where sheets "organize themselves as objects and program their own shapes." Her ultimate goal is to program various kinds of matter, embedding different materials with actuators, sensors, communication capabilities, and providing the software required for self"shaping processes. She shows a suite of functional objects inspired by origami, including a worm robot made of out of creased patterns, printed three"dimensionally out of a single sheet of paper. Rus has also created smart rocks that are actually a collection of robotic cubes that "talk to each other" and make decisions about how to come together to achieve a desired design, such as a dog. She is aiming for self"assembling robots that might traverse tunnels with snakelike shapes. Rus believes programmable materials will have a great impact on manufacturing. " Imagine a robot Kinkos of 2020, where you don't go to print a poster, but to print a robot."
No origami for Scott Aaronson, but instead deep probing about the limitations of computation, even as technological progress delivers more problem"solving power. He discusses the idea of problems that are simply intractable for computers, and wonders "if there is any feasible way to solve these problems consistent with the laws of physics." Aaronson envisions hypothetical devices, such as a time travel computer, where in a universe with "closed timelike curves," nature "would be forced to solve a very hard computational problem" such as going back in time and "telling Shakespeare what plays he was going to write." Another, less hypothetical concept for solving problems involves quantum computing. Groups today are working on implementing such computers, using ion tracks and nuclear magnetic resonance. However, says Aaronson, quantum computing to date can only "verify that with a high probability, 15 is equal to three times five." While it is possible "to imagine mathematical computers that vastly exceed" the capability of current technology, enormous challenges remain.
About the Speaker(s): Erik D. Demaine pursues wide"ranging research interests, including data structures for improving web searches to the geometry of understanding how proteins fold to the computational difficulty of playing games. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2003 as a "computational geometer tackling and solving difficult problems related to folding and bending--moving readily between the theoretical and the playful, with a keen eye to revealing the former in the latter". He appears in the recent origami documentary Between the Folds; cowrote a book about the theory of folding, Geometric Folding Algorithms; and a book about the computational complexity of games, Games, Puzzles, and Computation. His interests span the connections between mathematics and art, particularly sculpture and performance, including curved origami sculptures in the permanent collection of Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York.
Host(s): Office of the President, MIT150 Inventional Wisdom
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