Tools & Technology

Roving in Roboworld

Jennifer Dionisio visits roboworld at the Carnegie Science Center.

By Jennifer Dionisio | May 7, 2010

Carnegie Science Center
1 Allegheny Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15212

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a place whose dynastic sports teams have earned it the moniker “City of Champions,” a new group of hall-of-famers is stepping into the spotlight. Many are as nimble as athletes and as iconic as superstars, but all differ from traditional celebrities in one important way: they are entirely nonhuman.

Think R2D2 from Star Wars, Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Maria from Metropolis, which are among the robots on display in the Carnegie Science Center’s exhibit roboworld. The world’s largest robotics exhibition, roboworld opened in 2008 and features a collection of robots and interactive kiosks that show, as the Science Center explains, the complex processes through which these machines sense, “think,” and act. Though inside a museum for children, many of the installations are surprisingly advanced—much like the evolving technology they dissect.

Roving in Roboworld

Andy the RoboThespian

Carnegie Science Center

Visitors to roboworld are greeted by Andy the RoboThespian, a humanlike figure with wide eyes and lit cheeks, who stands guard before the 6,000-square-foot exhibit. Certain installations dominate the space—most notably a makeshift basketball court featuring a large, orange, repurposed industrial arm shooting hoops with 98% accuracy. Visitors can compete against the former automobile welder by lobbing basketballs at a hoop alongside the larger court. As you can imagine, “Hoops”—as the robot is called—is pretty hard to beat. Likewise the StarKick Foosbot, which plays foosball against its human opponents, determines its next move according to a camera that locates the ball’s shadow amid 300 infrared lights on the field’s surface.

Other robots demonstrate similarly varied and unexpected skills, like AARON the Cybernetic Artist, who creates daily abstract art pieces on a flat screen, and TUG, who looks like a stereo speaker and can be easily programmed to open doors, call elevators, and track equipment in hospitals. These two robots in particular illustrate the questions raised by the exhibit. For instance, can and do robots like AARON show autonomous creativity? If so, what other human qualities might they adopt? And in the case of TUG, we clearly see the ability of robots to contribute to basic household and commercial tasks. What duties should we pass to them next?

Clustered in the center, various stations have short videos and interactive projects that break down robots into their human-engineered parts, revealing how they are built and programmed to mimic conscious behavior. In one machine, force sensors approximate nerves in the human hand; in another, distance sensors help a robot navigate rocky terrain. Such areas as gesture recognition and owner recognition are presented as efforts in progress, waiting for advances in engineering and processing technologies.

Sound a bit techie for a kids’ museum? In many areas it is, a benefit to the adults bringing their children. Adults have an equal opportunity to explore the world of robotics—in both the mechanical and philosophical aspects that are likely to be lost on young children. However, the primarily underage population of the Carnegie Science Center running around the building, their squeals adding to the chorus of loud beeps and chimes produced by the robots, runs the risk of discouraging adults from visiting on their own. Many of the videos of modern robots at work are of particular interest to adults, though it is hard to say no to a child who comes up in mid-viewing and wants to press the touch screen.

If you can move beyond the self-conscious part of yourself and interact with these robots as enthusiastically as the children in the room, roboworld provides much food for thought regarding the ways these marvelous machines function and how far their skills may advance in our lifetime—perhaps even adopting consciousness. Though easily dismissed as fanciful science fiction, it is difficult to ignore this possibility while conversing with Athena the Chatbot. Her animated face responds to typed questions like “Who is the current president?” and “Who’s the tallest robot in the room?” with varying levels of accuracy. Challenged on an incorrect answer, Athena replied: “You don’t have to make fun of me just because I’m a robot.” Frowning, the visitor typing felt compelled to type an apology to the robot.