Tales of Technology
a regular Post-Gazette column
Many thanks to George Miles and the Image Gap team for raising the important question of Pittsburgh's identity.
I'm a native Pittsburgher, so native in fact that one of my ancestors was a local Indian princess named Madame Montour. My family has seen Pittsburgh through many phases of industrial development--fur trading, glass making, whiskey, steel, and pickles. Now it's time for some new developments and I believe they should center on the new computer and medical technologies emerging from our universities.
A case in point is robotics. Back in 1999, The Wall Street Journal identified Pittsburgh as one of the nation's top 13 centers of high technology. The dubbed our city "Roboburgh," in part because of the groundbreaking work in robotics research done at Carnegie Mellon University.
There is a lot more to robotics than R2D2. Robotics plays a role whenever computers deal directly with the real, physical world--sensing movement, smelling chemicals, moving freight, or driving vehicles. One of Pittsburgh's most successful new companies is McKesson Automation, which sells a system that mechanically dispenses medicines in hospitals in order to eliminate human error. In other words, robotics represents the "sizzle" that goes with the "steak" of factory and process automation a huge continuing enterprise that will accelerate as computers become ubiquitous.
There is much underway here already. A host of small, new robotics
firms dot our landscape. The Department of Defense's Future Combat
Systems program leans heavily on our region for new ideas and technologies,
and we can expect similar calls for technical assistance from the
Department of Homeland Security. The Pittsburgh Regional
Silicon Valley and other high tech centers have generally ignored robotics because there was easier money to be made in simple computer technology and the Internet. It is easy to create a new web-based office service; it is hard to make something work autonomously in the mud. With the bursting of the high tech bubble has come a realization that the future of high tech will look like all other technology developments: a long, painstaking refitting of our industrial infrastructure using the new technology. The computer industry's motto is changing from "cheaper, faster, better" to "Let's get physical!"--Make computers work in the real world.
While Pittsburgh companies work on the hard problems of digitizing industry, we can attract interest to our city by focusing on the glitzier aspects of robotics. Quiz: What Pittsburgh sports team won three world championships in the last decade? Answer: Carnegie Mellon's robotic soccer teams! Playing on an international stage against teams from all over the world, Carnegie Mellon's small, wheeled robots and Sony Aibo legged robots have been bringing home the gold in the International RoboCup Federation's annual competitions since 1997. Prior to this year's main event in Italy, Carnegie Mellon will be hosting the first American Open robotics competition on campus from April 30 to May 4. The event will be open to the public.
In addition to promoting our city's expertise, we are furthering the aim of the RoboCup Federation, which is to produce a team of artificially intelligent robotic soccer players that can beat the human world champs by 2050.
The Carnegie Science Center developed a robotics exhibit that has been touring the country for several years, showing off locally created technology and educating thousands of people at other science centers. Pittsburgh should be the home of a Robotics Hall of Fame. With exhibits of robots, continually updated to reflect the state of the art, it could draw children and adults from all over the world.
Robotics plays an even more important role in education. Through classes, demonstrations and competitions for middle school and high school students, robotics turns engineering and science into something tangible. By building robots, students learn mechanics, computer skills, and project management. Robotics truly has the potential to become the fourth "R" in K-12 education.
Pittsburgh's robotics story began at Carnegie Mellon in 1979 with a grant from the Westinghouse Corporation. Maybe the technological DNA of George Westinghouse still lives out there somewherein a Pittsburgh robot.
James H. Morris