Robotics Institute celebrates 25th anniversary

by Isabel Gardocki
Junior Staffwriter

?Mr. Washington thinks I should control RHex,? pleaded one middle school boy while another took out a ten-dollar bill and tried to outbid him. A group of children circled around Robotics Institute PhD student Sarjoun Skaff as he directed the lifelike robot around the Cut. Its agile box-shaped body, composed of an aluminum shell, six fiberglass legs, two onboard computers, and six motors, indiscriminately traversed pavement, grass, and curbs. Despite the gloomy weather, the 2004 Robotics Institute 25th Anniversary celebration was well under way.
More than 40 experts in the field of robotics gathered to mark this milestone and to discuss problems of the future such as how to build truly intelligent machines, provide untethered power, and overcome limits imposed by scale.
The critical challenge, according to the anniversary?s press material, remains to intertwine the existence of robots with that of humans in a positive and beneficial way.
?I think of robotics as more of a tool to enhance what a person can do,? explained research assistant Emily Hamener before the beginning of Tuesday?s Robotics Seminar Marathon. Her own project focuses on the use of robots ?to interest girls and minorities in science and technology.? Interactive computer-oriented courses would encourage teamwork and teach students interpersonal skills.
Research at Carnegie Mellon specifically targets nanomachines, computer vision, and autonomous mobile robots used to harvest crops and defend troops. Since its origins in 1979, the Institute has expanded to more than 300 faculty, staff, and students working on over 100 projects, with an annual budget of over $50 million. Director Matt Mason commended the Institute?s ?astonishing level of productivity,? adding that ?from the beginning you see a boldness? in the techniques and principles of the scientists.
As part of the festivities on Monday, five distinguished robots, both real and fictional, and their creators were honored by an induction into the Robot Hall of Fame. Joining R2-D2, HAL 9000, and Unimat were Honda?s ASIMO robot, Astro Boy, C-3PO, Robby the Robot, and Shakey.
The four-day celebration continued on Tuesday with ten demonstrations occurring simultaneously in Rangos Ballroom. Two Segways, scooter-like vehicles which can cost upward of $4000, made an appearance. ?It?s a little hard to get used to, especially the steering part,? complained one of the testers after running into a pole. ?It takes a minute to figure out.? After each successful spin around the room, bystanders broke out into applause to congratulate the driver. Also featured were McBlare the robotic bagpiper and the Snakebot, a limber robot that wriggled around like a serpent on the wooden floor. It has potential applications in search and rescue missions, surgical tasks, and bomb disarming.
?Anything that has components that perform autonomously in response to the environment is a robot. Most people don?t realize that robots are already all around them,? pointed out CIT first-year Justine Rembisz. ?It?s just that now robots are beginning to do greater things that people cannot ignore.?
Associate research professor Mel Siegel acknowledged this evolution of skill in his McConomy slideshow, detailing advancements from 1982, ?when cameras were expensive and computers were slow,? to ?the realization of 3D stereoscopic video displays? in 1992. According to Dr. Siegel, the next 10 years will be defined by ?how far we can push designs? in response to the ?opportunities and limitations of scale.?
The CMU Robotics Academy, operating under the slogan ?We?re building engineers, one child at a time,? presented six teams in Rangos to outmaneuver and outprogram each other with robots made out of Lego blocks. While building the robots was only an hour-long procedure, the children had worked since the beginning of the year on the program code, which they re-tested and tweaked right up to the start of the event.
Matt Kambic, a staff member at the Academy, pacified concerns about the relative maturity of some of the contestants with assurances that the youngsters are mentored and ?come up through the ranks? themselves.
Professor Manuela Veloso has also taken a unique approach to robotics education. ?Robots can learn,? she repeated during her lecture on ?The Challenges of Multi-Robot Teams in Adversarial Environments.?
Introduced as the inventor of robot soccer, Dr. Veloso outlined the successes of her efforts to program Sony AIBO robot dogs to score goals and dribble orange balls down a field, tasks she dubbed ?purposeful perception.?
?Walking is quite a difficult problem,? she said; however, she claimed that ?a robot is capable of evolving to a walk? and used her own experiments as proof. The Sony AIBO robots were 20 percent faster on the field after being allowed time to gauge movement parameters themselves than they were with previous hand-tuned gaits.
The robo-dogs communicate among themselves via wireless connections, and each dog is equipped with positioning algorithms that allow it to rapidly pinpoint its own location on the field.
?Our goal is to eventually have humans and robots competing with and against one another in soccer-like competitions with equal capabilities,? Veloso concluded.
Finishing the week?s events were the Grand Challenges of Robotics Symposium on Wednesday, featuring thirteen top international scientists, and Robotics Institute laboratory tours on Thursday.