TECH: Robot digs for archaeologists

From: J. R. Molloy (
Date: Thu Nov 08 2001 - 07:58:39 MST

Seeking Ancient Life? Ask the Robot Where to Trowel

Drawing on a five-year, $2 million grant recently awarded by the National
Science Foundation, Dr. Meskell and other Columbia scholars hope to bring
digital archaeology to the desert, including a robot equipped with
remote-sensing equipment. The robot will trundle through the sand, creating
3-D images of what lies beneath and pinpointing the most promising spots for
excavation before the trowels begin their slow and laborious digging.

That's just one of the digital approaches the multidisciplinary team plans on
developing. The grant program, which is led by Dr. Peter K. Allen, a professor
of computer science at Columbia, is designed to bring the benefits of
integrated circuits, laser scanning and sophisticated algorithms to the gritty
world of an archaeological dig and the analysis of historical sites in

To automate the search for auspicious areas within the extensive site, Dr.
Versteeg will work closely with Dr. Allen, who has created a robot outfitted
with a laser scanner. Dr. Versteeg hopes to mount his sensors on this robot so
that it can pace the desert, revealing what lies below.

"The robot won't get tired," Dr. Versteeg said. "It will work all night."

The group plans to investigate at least a 4,000-acre urban core at the center
of the site, said James Conlon, assistant field director of the excavation,
who has spent one preliminary season at Amheida.

The robot, which is equipped with a highly accurate global positioning
satellite system, could make its way through this area, Dr. Versteeg said,
measuring, for instance, the earth's magnetic field, then moving two inches
and taking another data point, gradually building an image of the magnetic
anomalies of the subsurface to find the most promising areas for digging.

The robot does a much better job of measuring than humans do, Dr. Versteeg
said. "Normally we would do this manually," he said, "but students wear out,
and they don't go in a straight line.`

Above-ground sensing at Amheida will be accomplished by the same robot, this
time equipped with a laser scanner. Each scan consists of about a million
range data points. (Range is the distance the laser beam travels to the
surface it is illuminating.) Dr. Allen and his group have written algorithms
that relate this dense scanning data to a set of photographs of the same
object. These photographic images are overlaid on the geometric models. "We
take 3-D models and automatically register photographs with them," he said, to
produce images that have not just shape, but also intense color and highly
realistic texture.

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Useless hypotheses, etc.:
 consciousness, phlogiston, philosophy, vitalism, mind, free will, qualia,
analog computing, cultural relativism, GAC, Cyc, Eliza, cryonics, individual
uniqueness, ego, human values, scientific relinquishment, malevolent AI

We move into a better future in proportion as science displaces superstition.

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