On Campus: Do Electric Sheep Dream of Androids?

By candlelight, Leonardo da Vinci sketched plans for an android. Hedesigned a mechanism that enabled the wrists to bend, the head to turn,and the hands to wave. In the chest cavity of a German-Italian suit ofarmor, he placed the creature's organs--an intricate system of pulleysand gears, allowing it to move independently. Later dubbed "Leonardo'sRobot," this knight, built around 1495, is the first known humanoidmachine.

Ever since, humans have yearned to create autonomousrobots that could relieve people of mundane tasks such as cleaning anddangerous tasks such as combat. Yet for all our interest in them, fewpeople know what modern robots do. The real things are rarely anythinglike R2-D2, the Terminator, or even da Vinci's creation.
IllahNourbakhsh and his colleagues in the Robotics Institute's CREATE Labmake and use robots and they know that most lay people don't understandtheir work at all. With that in mind, Nourbakhsh, an associateprofessor in the Robotics Institute, and Carl DiSalvo, an assistantprofessor in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture atGeorgia Tech, secured funding for Robot 250--a series of workshops heldat 16 different locations throughout Pittsburgh over two weeks in July.It was tied to the ongoing celebration of the city of Pittsburgh's250th anniversary and helped to show off the robotics research beingdone at Carnegie Mellon and throughout the region. At the workshops, CREATE Lab staff instructed children, families, and community membershow to design robots, and introduced them to projects like Canary,GigaPan, and Qwerk.

"We wanted to break people's stereotypes,"Nourbakhsh says. "By empowering people to use technology, it makes them (more) creative. We want people to participate in technology toinfluence the future development (of it)."

One group ofstudents made a concept robot which would de-ice sidewalks on bridgesin the winter. And they investigated environmental issues to make surethe salt wouldn't harm aquatic life in the water--Nourbakhsh hopedparticipants would use the technology as a conduit to understand theworld. "What's exciting is that children came back again and again.They stuck with it to create a prototype," he says.

Nourbakhshalso hoped Robot 250 would have a long-term impact. Knowing that artoften explores the role of technology in society, he invited artistsand performance companies--such as Quantum Theatre and Squonk Opera--todesign robots, too. Ian Ingram (CFA '07), a senior research associatein the Robotics Institute, spearheaded BigBots, a citywide exhibit ofrobotic artwork. Ingram's own "BigBot" was a 12-foot black and goldfoam "Number 1" finger, perched on the roof of the Andy Warhol Museum,pointing and waving at the city. He wanted to create a piece thatexplored Pittsburgh's love of sports and its place in robotics--andinstead of "attacking" the city, as science fiction robots often do,Ingram's finger bestowed a friendly compliment: "You're No. 1," it said.

Otherexhibits included a squat foam-covered sheep, grazing on the lawn ofPhipps Conservancy (it was a "green" lawnmower, but one that didn'trequire the care a real sheep does); a "rollercoaster for plants" thundering over the entryway of the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh;and animatronic animals playing videogames at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, among others.

While Robot 250 encouragedcreators to infuse life into art using robotics, robots, after all,also carry out more routine jobs. Canary, for instance, is a sensorpack that tracks environmental changes such as humidity, light, speed, and sound. Nourbakhsh says a resident of Pittsburgh's Lawrencevilleneighborhood who attended a Robot 250 workshop decided to modify the Canary to monitor traffic near her house. She added a mechanical armthat snapped a picture if the Canary detected large, speedingobjects--like cars. For several weeks, the robot monitored her street,documenting speeders--proof she can use to argue for tougher speed controls.

"These technologies can really impact the world," Nourbakhsh says. --Meghan Holohan is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer whose work regularlyappears at MentalFloss.com and in magazines such as Geek Monthly, Carnegie, and Pittsburgh Professional. See more Robot 250 coverage at www.robot250.org
For More Information: 
Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 | jt3y@cs.cmu.edu