Raffaello D'Andrea

Pure Engineering: Decoupling Technical Innovation from Utility and Consumerism

Date 4/25/11

Affiliation Swiss Federal Institute of Technology


The Robotic Chair, a performance piece that collapses into six separate pieces -- seat, back, and four legs -- and then proceeds to reassemble itself; the Balancing Cube, a structure that can balance on any one of its edges or corners using six rotating mechanisms on the cube's inner faces; the Distributed Flight Array, a flying platform consisting of multiple autonomous single propeller vehicles that are able to drive, dock with their peers, and fly in a coordinated fashion; the Blind Juggler, a robot that can keep multiple balls bouncing on a paddle without any sensory input; the Flying Machine Arena, a research-driven airspace where machines teach themselves -- and each other -- how to fly. What do they have in common, and more importantly, why were they conceived?

The human need to create is elemental. Whether this is an inevitable, evolutionary consequence of being the descendants of tool-making ancestors, or the cultural means by which we serve memes much bigger than our individual selves, we are compelled to execute the designs concocted by our imagination.

In the context of technical innovation, however, there is a growing consensus that this drive to create has become increasingly co-opted by materialism; that consumerism has become the mother of invention, and faith in technology its father; that we justify this faith with the misguided belief that technology is THE solution to our unsustainable trajectory, and that we institutionalize it by indoctrinating our technically gifted young in formalized educational settings.

This talk explores a different model of technical innovation: one where innovation for its own sake is fostered and cultivated; one that encourages individuals to see innovation as a natural consequence of being creative and playful, rather than a means to utility; one that detaches technology from its current role, and frees us to explore what its new role could be.


Raffaello D'Andrea is Professor of Dynamic Systems and Control at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. He also is technical co-founder and chief technology advisor for Kiva Systems, a Boston area high-tech company that has developed a revolutionary material handling system utilizing hundreds of fully autonomous mobile robots. In addition, he is an artist who has exhibited at various international venues, including the Venice Biennale, Ars Electronica, and ideaCity. Two of his collaborative projects are in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Canada. D'Andrea is a Fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and a recipient of the Invention and Entrepreneurship in Robotics and Automation Award, the United States Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering, and two best paper awards from the American Automatic Control Council and the IEEE. He was the faculty advisor and system architect of the Cornell Robot Soccer Team, four-time world champions at the international RoboCup competition in Sweden, Australia, Italy, and Japan. D'Andrea has received the National Science Foundation Career Award, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Golden Owl, and several teaching awards in the area of project-based learning.

-- As of 4/25/11

Related Links