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    The self-constructing robot

    And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog.

    Robot takeover might be imminent but for this fatal weakness: For all their powers, robots are just a bunch of screws lying on a table unless we put them together. That is, until a team of robotics engineers at MIT gave away our best advantage. Earlier this month, MIT News ran a story about a breakthrough technology called M-Blocks, little toy-sized cubes that bring us closer than ever to having modular, self-assembling robots. As the article and accompanying YouTube video show, inside each M-Block is a flywheel that spins incredibly fast. When the flywheel is braked, angular momentum propels the block forward. The blocks have magnetized outer faces, and as they stick together they begin assembling a more complex form.

    Right now the cubes aren’t able to perform any real functions, but they’re considered an important step towards creating genuinely self-reconfiguring robots. Daniela Rus, one of the lead engineers on the project, explains in the video that modular technology is very practical, because it allows robots to be changed to suit whatever task they might need to, perhaps, the extermination of humankind.

    Say cheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeese

    Panoramic group photography is still trotted out from time to time, at big events like graduations and inaugurations. In the early 20th century, though, it was the rage. A new book, “The Big Picture: America in Panorama,” shows how these extra-wide shots provide a unique perspective on the aspirations, and self-conception, of the people who painstakingly lined up for them.


    The book—twice as wide as it is tall—highlights pictures from the personal collection of Josh Sapan, chief executive of AMC Networks. They include group photographs from a 1931 Ku Klux Klan convention, the 1926 Miss America Pageant, and a stunning shot of the busy, chaotic scene when the first train arrived at Key West in 1912.

    The Red Jacket concrete bridge dedication (Blue Earth County, Minnesota, August 22, 1911).

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    Panoramic technology entered the mainstream consumer market in the late 19th century—just the right moment, Sapan said in an interview, to capture how a nation felt about itself. “America was a young country,” he says. “The pace of change was amazing, the development of the West was spectacular, and I do think there is this wild sense of possibility and optimism that is conveyed in the photographs.”

    No technology stays on top for long, and today maybe we’re too cynical for such a grand and serious medium. Instead we go in for disposable Instagram and Snapchat shots, which carry the opposite message: “Nothing’s happening in my life worth a permanent record.”

    Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at