right: Science Center Director Seddon Bennington and the Robotics exhibit team surround
the Basketball Arm, which shoots with remarkable accuracy and is controlled by visitors.
Kneeling in front is Yuri Plotnikov, electrical engineer; behind him from left
are Jim Dhayer, head of the Science Center fabrication shop; Bennington; Carol
Weston, head designer; Ray Russel, mechanical engineer; Nancy Halutick, exhibit
developer; and Matthew Sass, designer.
Seddon Bennington became director of Carnegie Science Center two years ago, after
overseeing the successful launching of the new Scitech
Discovery Centre in Perth, Australia, he saw an important challenge for the three-year-old
Center in Pittsburgh in making its educational programs relevant to the regional population.
Helping workers in western Pennsylvania grasp the possibilities of future employment
through a better understanding of science was, and still is, high on his agenda.
unemployment is a very international issue at the end of the century," he said
(Carnegie Magazine, Nov./Dec. 1994), and noted that "the whole range of
employment opportunities is changing rapidly and we need to develop flexibility in
our young people, so they can see different jobs as new opportunities and not just
be daunted by the opportunities denied."
Bennington is not alone in this
evaluation-every major economic study of the future of Pittsburgh emphasizes the need
to increase the region's workforce, and to stem the outflow of the younger population,
including thousands of university graduates annually, who want very much to stay in
the area, but who cannot find the right jobs.
With its new Robotics exhibit,
Carnegie Science Center is helping to plant the seeds for a new robotics culture in
Pittsburgh, and is showing the public the possibilities of education and future employment
in robotics. After a one-year stay in Pittsburgh, Robotics will travel to other science
centers, and should reach approximately three million people over four years.
interactive 5,000-square-foot exhibit was created by the Science Center in collaboration
with local robotics businesses such as Denning Branch International Robotics and Universal
Technology, Inc., Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, and leading robot
manufacturers from around the country. Robotics introduces the world of intelligent
machines-how they work, who builds them, and what they do-and organizes the exhibit
around themes such as sensing, thinking and acting.
The exhibit dispels fantasies
about robots by introducing the basic science behind robots, and comparing the human
processes of sensing, thinking and acting with similar robotic functions. The exhibit
also demonstrates the advantages of robots in the workplace-but as an extension of
human capability, rather than as a threat to workers. It can help people define career
opportunities in the robotics industry.
Decades of popular science fiction,
films, television and other entertainments have ingrained in the public imagination
the stereotyped android robot-a machine that looks like a person and walks, thinks,
talks and performs superhuman feats-such as flying or fighting criminals the way Robocop
does in the movies. In reality most robots do not look like humans or have all their
capabilities, but robots are ideal for going where humans cannot, and for performing
specific routines endlessly with great precision.
As humans we carry out apparently
simple tasks with little thought of the multiple senses, skills, and actions involved.
One example is posed in the exhibit: You can tie your shoelaces-but can you tie them
by using two pairs of pliers, and do this while blindfolded? This sensory depriviation
is comparable to the way robots operate, and demonstrates what technology must be
designed to accomplish. A practical view of robotics reveals it to be a series of
problems in designing software, engineering mechanical parts capable of specific tasks,
and operating machines that "sense," "think" and "act."
includes more than 30 different hands-on activities and appeals to people of all ages.
The range of both high- and low-tech exhibits encourages people to experience these
cutting edge technologies in very entertaining ways.
Carnegie Science Center
is once again, as in planetarium shows "Through the Eyes of Hubble" and
"Journey into the Living Cell," being entrepreneurial in its production
of popular science programs, and in maintaining its reputation as one of the leaders
of science center education in the 1990s. When the exhibition goes on tour to other
science center, the lease revenues will help recover the costs of its development
Basketball Arm-this tall
industrial robot made in Sweden for automobile manufacturing can shoot a basketball
with 95 percent accuracy-visitors will be able to control the arm and adjust the parameters
of the shooting program.
Multiple sensors-including a metal detector, a weight
detector, a capacitance detector, and a temperature detector. Visitors will be able
to examine sensor read-outs of different objects on a computer screen and experiment
with how much or how little sensory information is needed to identify objects in a
Fool the Motion Detector-visitors move as slowly as they can in an attempt
to fool an ultrasonic motion detector.
Julia, the Chatterbot-"Julia"
is an artificial intelligence program housed in a computer, and she will talk to visitors
about pets, while seeming to express emotions, likes and dislikes, and a personality.
speech synthesis system used by physically challenged people for oral communication.
The brilliant physicist and astronomer David Hawking uses this system. Words or sentences
typed on the Dynavox keyboard are translated into "speech."
at CMU as the world's first self-regulating vehicle designed to travel in environments
too dangerous for people. A video of Terregator in action will run continuously.
and Seek-Visitors hide from a locally built "Fander" teaching robot. The
robot finds the visitors by sensing an arm band they wear.
see how a robotic arm can be used for sorting operations when combined with a vision
system. They race with the robot to sort keys into their specific position-oriented
slots, and the robot is at least 30 percent faster than the human.
a Robotics Culture in Pittsburgh
Why has robotics become such an important
subject for Pittsburgh? There are several reasons. First is the large and successful
commitment made by Carnegie Mellon University to be the recognized national leader
in field robotics research and engineering. This has had internationally visible results,
like the development of Dante (the spidery robot shown in the exhibition) that can
operate in hostile environments such as the mouth of a volcano or the surface of Mars.
Second is the development of start-up companies such as Red Zone Robotics which reveal
a possible path for economic growth in southwestern Pennsylvania.
very important for Pittsburgh is government support at all levels for research and
business enterprise in robotics. In 1994, NASA provided $2.5 million in funding to
create a Robotics Engineering Consortium (REC) in Pittsburgh. In 1995 Pennsylvania's
Governor Tom Ridge authorized $6.5 million to Pittsburgh's Urban Redevelopment Authority
(URA) to create a robotics research facility, and URA paid $1.3 million more to acquire
a site in Lawrenceville. Widespread political support has been forthcoming for Pittsburgh's
emergence in robotics. The mayor of Pittsburgh, the governor of Pennsylvania, congressional
representatives and senators, as well as local political leaders, have provided support
and encouragement. Former governor Richard Thornburgh headed the recent Presidential
Commission on Science and Technology and coordinated many of the activities now bearing
fruit in Pittsburgh. Science, business and government are uniting to spawn a new age
of robots. What are these field robots? U.S. News and World Report (March 18, 1996)
heralded "The New Magic Machines" under development in Pittsburgh as "part
of a new generation of smart, flexible machines that can perform work in unstructured
environments almost anywhere." Besides mobile robots that can toil at radioactive
sites, other uses are predicted in entertainment, defense, lumbering, inspections
and security. At REC in Lawrenceville, housed in a renovated century-old Pittsburgh
foundry building, some of the most exciting new machines are under development, such
as "Demeter" (named after the Greek goddess of agriculture and fertility),
a harvester for New Holland North America that will work tirelessly down rows of plants,
distinguishing the cut from the uncut as it makes its selection. Also at REC, driverless
vehicles are being experimented with by Caterpillar Corp., which wants to use automated
equipment to expand its market in the surface mining industry. Totally automated mining
machines are being developed for the National Mining Company of Chile, and the "autonomous"-i.e.
no human is in the car-driving of a vehicle at high speeds off the highway is under
analysis for Boeing Corp. Other projects include robotic cargo handling, "telepresence"
conferencing-which can put a viewer in an environment, such as in the driver's seat
of a robot on the moon; and a Simlab "virtual reality bicycle" for Children's
Hospital-which can test and evaluate a child's motor responses and other physical
But a cornucopia of new products and the weathervanes of science,
business and government pointing towards a future for robotics in Pittsburgh do not
themselves guarantee that robotics will grow into a great industry here. There is
much more to be done, including a great deal of public education.
are talking about a set of technologies that companies all over the world are going
to be utilizing," says David Pahnos, director of the new NASA-CMU consortium.
"The opportunity for Pittsburgh is to be one of those technical centers that
pushes the technology forward and, as a technical center, act as a magnet for business."
Pahnos envisions Pittsburgh as the robotics capital of the world. But Pittsburgh
is in a race with other cities. At the artificial intelligence laboratory at MIT in
Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in several California institutions, there is equal opportunity
to spark industrial growth. The director of Carnegie Science Center, Seddon Bennington,
points out that "factory robots" are already being built in great numbers
in Japan and Sweden, and that Pittsburgh cannot simply replicate this first generation
of industrial effort. Rather, Pittsburgh's developing expertise and potential niche,
world-wide, is in the new high-end technology-the programming, the software and hardware,
electronic engineering, biological and environmental research and applications, and
communications, that will drive the field robotics industry forward.
the past eight or nine years the niche market for advanced robotics techn ology has
been developing," says Pahnos, "until it is now about to go commercial,
and transition in the next few years into a mass market." There is no longer
any question of whether the advanced machines will work-we know they will. Now the
question is whether Pittsburgh can mount a total community effort at the right time-new
combinations of business, government, banking, corporate support, research and education.
Once again, says Pahnos, Pittsburgh must reward the creative strategies and superior
knowledge of its entrepreneurs, just as it did for those who built the 19th-century
businesses that became the legendary Pittsburgh money machines of subsequent decades.
Carnegie Mellon's dozen or so scientific leaders in robotics have made Pittsburgh
the world leader in robotics research, and a hundred or so advanced graduate students
in the Ph.D. pipeline can help maximize Pittsburgh's research advantage. But more
than research is required. "What is needed is more than an expertise; it's a
culture," says Red Whittaker, Pittsburgh's most visible robotics scientist/entrepreneur.
The automobile became central to Detroit, and Silicon Valley emerged in California,
as steel did a century ago in Pittsburgh, because in each case entrepreneurs created
new business structures to promote the products of the new technologies.
are not as many jobs in robotics as there were in 19th century heavy industry, when
5,000 laborers passed through a gate during a shift change at the mill. Today the
educational bar is being raised higher all over the world, says Pahnos, even as the
dollar value of unskilled labor on the world, market continues to drop. But skilled
labor in the manufacturing of robotics could be highly valued. Manufacturing in western
Pennsylvania created a culture of metalworking that produced an excellent workforce,
and that has not disappeared.
As it competes economically for national attention
against comparable cities like Cleveland, Boston, Seattle, Austin, Baltimore or Raleigh,
Pittsburgh must use to its advantage all of its historic strengths.
tours other metropolitan centers, it will promote Pittsburgh's leadership in this
emerging new field of technology.
-R. Jay Gangewere is editor of Carnegie
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