This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 07 table of contents.

Motor Routines

Scientists who study motor skills speak of routines. A routine is a skill, a procedure, a recipe, a series of instructions for performing a task. A sub-routine is a recipe within a recipe. For example:


(Skipping past the first 13 steps...)

What is a routine? A sub-routine?

Step #14: Add one cup of flour

Sub-routine 14a: Get measuring cup

Sub-routine 14b: Fill with flour

Sub-routine 14c: Dump into bowl


Step #15: Add pinch of salt

Sub-routine 15a: Get salt

Sub-routine 15b: Shake once over bowl


Step #16 (etc)

If you were designing a robot to bake a cake, you would have to think in terms of complete job descriptions that included such details as "looking around the kitchen to find a salt shaker." Or "recognizing an object as a spoon." All these routines and subroutines would have to be precisely coordinated, or the robot would fail in its task.

To completely specify the operations in even a simple motor task is very challenging! Looking back, it is hard to believe that people in the 1940s and 1950s believed household robots would be helping with housework in the 1960s and 1970s. Now we know that "merely" making a robot walk on four legs, like most animals, is a daunting task.

How have ambitions for robots been lowered?

As the complexity of even simple motor activity became obvious, ambitions of researchers were scaled down. Rodney Brooks of MIT and Randall Beer of Case Western University became famous for building robot insects, the first of which appeared in 1987. Programmed with a few simple rules and movements, the tiny robots simulate insect behavior. Now beginning students in Artificial Intelligence at many schools assemble them for practice. You can build your own (<>). We can have robotic cockroaches today, although we may have to wait a century or two before robots are cleaning our kitchens for us.

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Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey