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Mo, 13. März 2006, 00:00

Interview with Michael Shiloh of LinuxRobots

Michael Shiloh explains the robot

Thomas Schönhoff

Michael Shiloh explains the robot

Pro-Linux: Please introduce yourself to our readers, who are you and what's your personal background?

Michael Shiloh: I've been playing with electronics and electrical contraptions since I was very young. I grew up in Israel in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At that time it was pretty rare for kids to have access to electronic hobby stuff, so I learned what I could from books and by taking things apart. A friend gave me an old Heathkit catalog which I read over and over. (I also thought that every child in the USA had each thing in the catalog.)

We moved to the USA when I was about 9, and there I had access to a much wider range of discarded electronic devices. I built simple things like amplifiers and electric cars. I was interested in robots and computers but building real ones was a dream. I built pretend robots and computers with lights and things, but I knew they weren't real.

I moved back to Israel when I was about 15.

Back in Israel, I remember seeing a magazine article about the first "hobby" computer, the IMSAI 8080, around 1974 or 1975. It was incredibly exciting and there seemed to be no end of the possibilities one could accomplish.

I went to college in California and studied Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Suddenly computers and robots seemed much more realistic, and in fact after college computers became my job, first as a hardware engineer, and then more as a programmer, and finally as an embedded engineer, specializing in the areas where software meets hardware. This brought me into contact with industrial robotics.

All my life I had been interested in robots, but I was interested in experiments and projects which didn't always have a useful aspect, but seemed interesting to me nonetheless. Finally in 1994 I found and started working with SRL, an art group that produced shows with machines as actors. It made me realize that robots did not need to be practical to be interesting. I also learned a lot about fabrication and mechanical engineering by working with SRL.

Pro-Linux: What's your view to free and open software (FOSS)?

Michael Shiloh: I believe that FOSS is a revolution, not just in software, but as a way of life. My robot sort of follows the philosophy, not just that I use open source software and I tell people how to make their own, but of making the robot itself open so that others can write programs on it. I like to think that I'm providing a robot platform for people who don't have access to their own.

Back to FOSS: I use it at work, I use it for play, I wouldn't be able to do the things I do without it. It's a tool, an inspiration, a motiviation. To paraphrase Newton, I can get more done because I stand on the shoulders of giants. I am deeply, deeply convinced that we, all peoplekind, can do more when we share, when we cooperate, when we teach each other what each of one us has figured out, than if we each keep our ideas secret from one another.

I think we also get along better in a sharing, cooperative society than in a competitive, secretive society.

Pro-Linux: Could you please give us some insight to your motivation launching linuxrobots.org?

Michael Shiloh: It's very simple. When I started making a robot using Linux, the first thing I looked for was to learn from others who had done similar things (see my answer to Q2 above :-). Although I found a number of such projects, I was amazed that I couldn't find a community, a mailing list or project of somekind for sharing ideas. So I figured I'd make one. I was even more amazed when I found the domain available.

Right now the website is mostly about my robot, but I don't want that long term. I'd like to see many other robots and builders, hobbyists, scientists, and anyone interested exchanging ideas there.

I hope your readers take the message to heart.

Pro-Linux: Any advantages to take Linux for building robots compared to other operating systems? What are the strenghts to rely on Linux?

Michael Shiloh:

  1. Almost all source code is available, so if I need to fix or modify something, or just to help understand it, I can.
  2. A community to ask questions, very often even to be able to ask the original author of some software.
  3. The possibility of doing time critical stuff in the driver or kernel, if I wish. I haven't looked into low latency and soft real time yet, but it's good to know that's available as I move forward.

Pro-Linux: Did you face trouble allowing public logins to your robot so far (i.e. damages)? Any other calamities challenging your project?

Michael Shiloh: I had trouble once, when someone erased all the files in my src directory. Fortunately I had a backup of all of my code, but I had no backup of all the programs left by visitors. The code left behind is a wonderful history, an inspiration. I'm sorry I lost the early users.

Now I back up what people leave more often.

(By the way, it's very possible that the files got erased by accident.)

I monitor the robot with "who", "top", and I always like to see the source files: ls -lt src/*.c.

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