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After five great years on the road… It’s Back!

The Return of












Ted Frymark

Robotics enjoyed a successful, although brief, one-year stay in Pittsburgh. But since it was created to be a traveling exhibit, off it went—to Tampa, Boston, Dallas, Houston, Portland, San Jose, Honolulu, Vancouver, Edmonton, and a host of other cities.

“ It's been a blockbuster everywhere it’s gone,” says Tom Flaherty, the Science Center’s director of Exhibits and Facilities. “It’s been on the road for nearly six years and has exceeded our expectations.” Now Robotics is heading back to Carnegie Science Center for another one-year stint.

The seed for the 6,000-square-foot interactive Robotics exhibit was germinated in 1995 when the Science Center began to create high-tech exhibitions relevant to the technology growth of the region. The goal was to produce exhibits that showcased Pittsburgh’s leadership in Robotics and medicine. The result was Robotics and ZAP!: Surgery Beyond the Cutting Edge.

The creation of Robotics was a massive enterprise, taking over two years to design and build. “No one had ever successfully created a traveling exhibition on Robotics,” Flaherty says of the endeavor. And its pedigree is distinguished: Local Robotics businesses including Universal Technology Inc., American Robot Inc., and Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, as well as leading robot manufacturers from around the country collaborated on its creation.

The ABB arm is a robot that visitors can program to shoot hoops.

But the Science Center staff was sure the work was worth the effort, and the exhibit would be a crowd-pleaser. “Robot-related displays had been drawing crowds back to the days of the Buhl Planetarium,” says Flaherty.

The fascination with robots obviously extended beyond western Pennsylvania. During its travels, Robotics enjoyed record attendance. Flaherty estimates that approximately 2.8 million people have played with and learned from Robotics since its premiere.

He assures us that when Robotics returns to Pittsburgh, it will be none the worse for the wear. " Our goal is to keep the exhibit working 100 percent of the time,” says Flaherty. “Robotics has been well maintained since it was created.” In fact, wherever the exhibit went, it was accompanied by two Carnegie Science Center employees who trained staff at Robotics’ temporary home to keep the exhibit running smoothly. Extensive maintenance manuals with troubleshooting procedures for every component were left behind as well.
For those who missed the exhibit the first time—or those who long for another chance to best a machine—Robotics reopens at Carnegie Science Center October 11.

Sarcos, an animatron
(a programmed machine),
greets visitors and explains
what the exhibit is about.

Robots: a Growing Population
The primary goal of Robotics is to address the increasing level of Robotics technology in all areas of life as well as the growing career and business opportunities in the Robotics field. Ninety percent of all robots used today are found in factories, but they are finding their way into warehouses, laboratories, research sites, energy plants, hospitals, and outer space. Robots make jobs easier for people because they can go where humans can’t (through the Titanic for instance), where humans don’t want to go (into a sewer to check for cracks and obstructions), and tackle dangerous tasks (handling hazardous waste). They also perform tasks that make a human feel like an android—such as endlessly screwing lids on ketchup bottles.

Then again, even though robots can range from simple machines to highly complex, computer-controlled devices, they can’t create or think independently, learn from mistakes, adapt to changes in their surroundings, or do several vastly different tasks at the same time. There’s no such thing as multitasking in a robot’s vocabulary. With that in mind, there’s little chance that robots will take over the workplace, let alone the world, as many science fiction novels and movies forecast.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t similarities between robots and humans—as Robotics demonstrates. In many ways robots and people have a lot in common: both gather information about their environment (sense) and use that information (think) to follow instructions to complete a task (act). It’s just that robots and humans go about these functions differently. People use sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch to observe the world around them—a robot, however, is pretty much deaf and blind. Even though some robots can “sense” things people can’t, including movement too small or fast for the human eye to detect or tiny amounts of invisible radiation, robots provide very limited feedback.
And that’s what Robotics is all about—seeing what robots are (and aren’t); comparing the differences between how humans and robots operate; learning how a robot works; and exploring how robots will change the future.

Robotics, which includes more than 30 different hands-on activities, will appeal to people of all ages. There’s even a Kids Zone area where young children can build and program robots and use mechanical arms to manipulate objects. There are famous robots, as well. No, not Robocop, but Dante II, which completed a remote mission inside the live volcano Mt. Spur, and Terregator, the world's first autonomous mobile robot. A video on the display floor provides scenes of Dante II in action. Both Dante II and Terregator are on loan from Carnegie Mellon University.

Dante II decends
into a live volcano.

If visitors are looking for the type of robots portrayed in movies—such as A.I. and Blade Runner—well, they’ll have to visit the sci-fi shelf at the video store. The closest thing to a movie robot at Robotics is the humanoid Sarcos Animatronic that greets visitors and humorously dispels some misconceptions about present-day robots. In fact, Robotics proves Hollywood robots are a far cry from reality’s robots.

The real robots at the Science Center are both fun and user-friendly. Visitors can program a seven-foot-tall ABB Basketball Robot to shoot basketballs with 95 percent accuracy (ABB robots are used to assemble cars in factories) and interact with DynaVox, a speech synthesizer robot designed to help people with physical challenges.

Trying To Beat the Machine
Probably the best part of Robotics is trying to beat the machines. Can you fool an ultrasonic motion detector system? How about beating a high-speed assembly line robot at sorting and identifying 12 keys to unlock 3 locks? Not to ruin the fun, but the robot usually performs the key sorting task in 24 seconds (at least 30 percent faster than a human). Maybe that’s why Pepperidge Farms uses a similar one to sort cookies in its factory?

There are some tasks, however, that humans still perform better than robots. At “Tie Your Shoes,” visitors can try the sensory deprivation exercise of tying a shoe while blindfolded and using two pairs of Robogrip pliers instead of their hands. Robots can’t do it either. In fact, Robotics proves robots can’t do many simple human tasks. In the world of man vs. machine, there is definitely a trade-off.
Since being created eight years ago, there have been some radical advances in the Robotics field and the Science Center staff have kept up with new technology. “We've upgraded several components—such as the Robot or Rembrandt Drawing Arm, The Mobot Mobile Robot, and ABB Basketball Robot—along with some computer equipment,” says Flaherty. “All these components still represent fairly new technologies, most of which have not been seen by the average person.” Flaherty adds that he and his staff are working with Carnegie Mellon in hopes of adding at least one new element to the exhibition during its run in Pittsburgh.
And then, on September 7, 2004, Robotics will be packed up once again for another cross-country tour.

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