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Carnegie Mellon University Launches The Robotics Project World-First Attempt Will Preserve and Promote Legacy of the Field

Aaron AupperleeThursday, July 15, 2021

Katherine Barbera, an archivist and oral historian in the University Libraries and lead archivist for The Robotics Project, displays a part from the Trojan Cockroach.

In a grainy video shot in the early 1980s on Carnegie Mellon University's campus, Ivan Sutherland rides on top of the Trojan Cockroach, a six-legged machine considered the first controlled by a computer and capable of carrying a person. Sutherland puts the machine through its paces, slowly walking forward, backward and sideways and turning 180 degrees in the video. At one point, he attempts to balance the massive machine on only two legs.

"We believe that a mastery of balance will be important to future walking machines," Sutherland narrates over the footage.

That Trojan Cockroach video, complete with Sutherland's prophetic comments on the importance of balance to the future of legged robots, is part of a new interactive, virtual exhibit from University Libraries and the School of Computer Science at CMU that explores the beginnings of and contributions to the field of robotics.

University Libraries and SCS have launched The Robotics Project with its first exhibit, Building the Robot Archive. The exhibit documents the legacy of robotics at CMU and provides an informative and behind-the-scenes look at the collaborative effort between roboticists and archivists to document the field's history. It provides insight into the questions the team wrestled with, the methods they used and the lengths needed to capture the legacy of this research and its innovators.

"Our team faces challenges in this work, and we're developing unique methods that will allow us to preserve this history so that current and future generations can understand the evolution of robotics and its significant impact on the modern world," said Katherine Barbera, an archivist and oral historian in the CMU Libraries and lead archivist for The Robotics Project.

The Robot Archive is a core component of The Robotics Project, the world's first attempt to preserve and promote the legacy of the field and the go-to repository for the past, present and future of robotics. CMU's contributions to the field of robotics include several firsts, from which sprung a robust discipline that is reshaping the fabric of modern life. The Robotics Project is a work in progress and will continue to grow and evolve as archivists and roboticists collaborate to highlight achievements of the past and connect them to endeavors of the future.

CMU was at the start and remains at the center of the development of robotics. Any history of CMU, the Pittsburgh technology ecosystem, or the field of robotics would be incomplete without recognition of this work and its broader impact.

"For over a decade, I have been fortunate to work with teams in the field of robotics and autonomous vehicles, together witnessing incredible breakthroughs to some of the world's most complex challenges," said Bryan Salesky, founder and CEO of Argo AI. "We often say that Argo was founded on the shoulders of the roboticists that pioneered this industry, and we are thrilled to preserve and celebrate this rich history with The Robotics Project."

Robotics has a complicated history, spanning not only decades but interconnected teams, labs, communities and institutions. Artifacts — not just robots but also the supporting materials like prototypes, parts, models, videos, images, code, research proposals, emails, websites and even trading cards — help answer questions about the people and research involved, the robot's actions and the project's intent. Stories from the roboticists, engineers, scientists, students and others bring the work to life.

As the pioneering robots and innovators age, the world risks losing these pieces of history. Some robots were discarded and decaying in warehouses and fields. Some data and documents were stored on magnetic tape, disks and other obsolete media dependent on outdated technology. Now is the time to capture stories and preserve work.

The complete exhibit, Building the Robot Archive, is now available to view online. This work is supported by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation as well as generous private donors.

For More Information

Aaron Aupperlee | 412-268-9068 | aaupperlee@cmu.edu