Herbert A. Simon Award for Teaching Excellence
School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University
Pittsburgh PA 15213-3891
(412)268-8525 . (412)268-5576 (fax)

When Students Meet Robots

Illah Reza Nourbakhsh

The undergraduate student team has spent days following their gopher robot around Wean Hall. Office- Boy 2000 is designed to do errands by convincing complete strangers to lend a helping hand (the robot has no arms). Late one night, the students decide it is time to turn OfficeBoy 2000 loose. They type Get me a Coke into the robots interactive screen, hit OK and hold their breath. OfficeBoy 2000 considers its options for a few seconds, formulates a plan, and takes off down the hall, turning the corner and disappearing from view. The students use heroic levels of self control to keep from following OfficeBoy. Five minutes later the robot returns, with a Coke in its tray! OfficeBoy has succeeded. The students cheer loudly, then sprint off towards the vending machine, to meet OfficeBoy 2000's first human volunteer.

Robotics is intrinsically fun, and this makes teaching robotics one of the easiest jobs at CMU. A robot is part computer and part physical machine, its reach extends well beyond the desktop and the internet, and into the physical world of humans. Twelve year old students in C-MITES robotics summer courses dive after Lego robots that have flung themselves accidentally off the edge of the table. Undergraduate mobile robotics students leap and punch at the emergency stop button when their robots make a wrong turn, breaking through a cardboard wall and heading for the stairs. Robotics students cannot take bugs lightly.

After the students have discovered a bug and have averted a disaster, they face the challenge of diagnosing the robots ills and repairing it. In computer programming, this can mean pouring over hundreds of lines of program code. But robots are complex interactive machines, and the student diagnostician must learn to be a behavioral psychologist. The student runs the robot program, then observes the robot and interacts with it repeatedly, trying to formulate a theory as to why the robot is behaving poorly.

Robotics is also a surprisingly young field. In 1980, researchers believed R2D2 was several decades away from being tenable. Today, R2D2 is still several decades away! This may be bad news for researchers, because robotics has turned out to be more difficult than anticipated. But it is good news for students. In a semester and a half, a new student of robotics can graduate from novice to pioneer. Few fields can boast such a speedy trip to the frontier of knowledge, where a truly creative undergraduate can do something with a robot that nobody has done yet, ever.

In just one semester, our students have created a robot comedy Improv troupe that improvises new skits every time it performs. They have produced a bridge troll that carries people across the Newell Simon bridge. They have even made a real-life, robotic version of the animated Pixar desk lamp. And, yes, they have created OfficeBoy 2000.

Many of these students chose to pursue careers in robotics. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job is that I can proudly identify our alumni making waves at NASA and at universities and robot companies around the world. If they have accomplished so much in so little time here at CMU, I can only wonder where the robot revolution that they lead will take us in a decade. Do not underestimate these robotics pioneers of the future.


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