When we think of robotics and artificial intelligence, it’s not hard to imagine them as something removed from our own lives. After all, it is the Elon Musks of the world who are going to space and building self-driving cars.
There is no doubt that this technology can improve the lives of many people no matter their socioeconomic status, but many advocates are calling for a new landscape: one that democratizes hardware instead of monopolizing it. In short, accessible technology.
That’s what Martin Nisser, a PhD candidate at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, is working towards: a future of self-building robots that require little human intervention, and hardware that everyone can afford to buy.
Nisser researched and worked with self-folding robots at the European Space Agency. Thanks to the program, he realized that he could marry his passion for robotics and his budding interest in space.
Space agencies require systems and machines that can fit into the confines of a rocket firing, and Nisser saw an opportunity to build self-reconfiguring structures for this purpose.
“I developed algorithms that would allow large numbers of spacecraft modules to move together, attach to one another, and then reconfigure together into a target shape,” he says of his time at the program.
Even when he moved on to his post-graduate studies at MIT, making objects in space was a continued interest. Under the university’s research programs, he and his team started developing a 3D printing system that would theoretically work in outer space. While the project is still under wraps, it was recently tested during a parabolic flight which stimulated weightlessness for multiple 20-second intervals.
LaserFactory, a $150 laser cutter add-on device that produces custom-designed devices, is one of the many ways Nisser aims to solve the problem of inaccessible hardware and robotic technology.
Featured by the BBC for its innovativeness, the device has been applauded by its simplicity, and for the fact that it requires no additional instructions during the fabrication process. He hopes that this is the stepping stone to printing fully-functional robots in space.
Apart from this, Nisser dedicates his spare time to teaching basic programming to incarcerated women. Brave Behind Bars, a program founded by himself and another grad student, Marisa Gaetz, is an initiative that aims to reduce recidivism in the U.S. through progressive education.
Nisser looks forward to creating more projects that focus on accessibility of hardware, so that more people can create things without the expertise that many may not be able to afford.
“By distributing fabrication via inexpensive printers or self-assembling hardware that remove the need for engineering expertise, we create an opportunity for people to share and create things physically. And that’s good for everyone,” he says.