4 robots clank into Hall of Fame; 2 fictional, 2 real

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Robots became famous before they became real, so when Carnegie Mellon University inducted its first four members into its Robot Hall of Fame last night, it wasn't surprising that two of them were strictly works of science fiction.

The heroic, if pint-sized, R2-D2 of the George Lucas' "Star Wars" films and the evil HAL-9000 computer of Arthur C. Clarke's "2001: A Space Odyssey" thus joined two very real robots: NASA's six-wheeled Sojourner, which explored Mars in 1997, and the Unimate robotic arm, which General Motors began using to assemble cars in 1961.

The four robots were inducted during ceremonies attended by a couple of hundred guests last night at the Carnegie Science Center, which also marked the launch of a Web site, www.robothalloffame.org. The hall of fame is the brainchild of James Morris, dean of the Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science, who hopes to see the creation of a permanent, interactive exhibit involving robotics.

Spots in the hall haven't been formally divvied up between the fictional and the nonfictional, Morris said. This year's voting by a 13-member panel of experts just happened to produce two of each.

The selection of R2D2 may have been a shoo-in, just based on the continuing popularity of "Star Wars."

"When people think of robots, they probably think of R2D2," Morris said. Kenny Baker, the diminutive actor who played R2D2, was on hand for last night's ceremony, as was David Prowse, who played Darth Vader, and Kathleen Holliday, director of special programs at Lucasfilm.

But Morris was a little surprised by the choice of HAL-9000, a machine character usually thought of as a computer, not a robot. Though in no way a humanoid robot, HAL controlled and personified an entire spaceship. Many people who viewed Stanley Kubrick's film forgot the name of the spaceship, Discovery, but they never forgot HAL.

HAL "was a provocative embodiment of technology," and thus an appropriate choice for the hall of fame, Morris added.

Clarke, who lives in Sri Lanka, was unable to attend. But Morris read a letter from Clarke, who noted that HAL -- and Douglas Rain, who provided the computer's film voice -- is a character that has stuck with the author.

"I've programmed my computer," he wrote, "so that when I ask it to do something impossible, it answers soothingly: 'I'm sorry, Dave, I can't do that.' "

The panel chose from a list of 32 nominated robots, with each panel member given 10 votes to use in any combination. Some of the robots receiving high numbers of votes may be selected next year, Morris said, though he anticipates the Web site will also bring more nominations from the public.

Robots don't yet have egos, Morris noted in remarks for last night's ceremonies, but the decision to induct robots, not their creators, might be said to have been made with an eye on the future.

"If someday robots do, in fact, take over," he said, "this will put us all in good stead."

In choosing science-related robots, the selection committee emphasized robots that had accomplished some breakthrough, some unprecedented feat, such as Sojourner's exploration of Mars.

"This is quite an honor," said Jake Matiljevic, who was manager of Sojourner, otherwise known as the Mars Pathfinder Microrover Flight Experiment, and who represented NASA at last night's ceremony.

Sojourner, a robot no bigger than a microwave oven that some likened to a motorized skateboard, had an outsize impact on the public consciousness when it landed on Mars in the summer of 1997.

The little robot crept slowly around the landing site while taking command from earthbound controllers 122 million miles away. It sidled up to rocks, which acquired nicknames such as Barnacle Bill, that it could then analyze with onboard instruments.

It provided an unprecedented view of the Red Planet that beguiled users of the Internet, which was then still in its early stages of public acceptance. The Pathfinder Web site received almost 750 million hits during the three-month rover mission.

"It was an important development for us," Matiljevic said, noting that the capabilities demonstrated in 1997 have now been improved and embodied in the two Mars Exploration Rovers, dubbed Spirit and Opportunity, now en route to a January landing on the Red Planet.

Long before Sojourner made history, the Unimate robotic arm was making money.

"A robot's a great product if it makes someone a profit," said Joseph Engelberger, the founder of Unimation Inc. who is often referred to as the "Father of Robotics."

During a lecture yesterday afternoon at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, Engelberger recalled that Unimation sold those first industrial arms for $25,000 apiece, though each cost $60,000 to make. But once the arm was proven a success in the factory, Unimation found a way to produce them for $8,000 each, so ultimately they made money for both GM and Unimation.

Today, robots are routinely used in industries involved in everything from forging to spray painting.

"If you're in one of those businesses today and you're not using robots," Engelberger said, "you're losing money."

Engelberger -- who later started HelpMate Robotics Inc., the maker of a robotic hospital porter -- now is interested in service robots, such as robotic farmers, gasoline station attendants and space vehicle assemblers. Though now retired from HelpMate, he continues to pursue his dream of a two-armed humanoid robot that could be an in-home helper for the elderly.

Such a robot could prepare meals, help people get up from chairs or from bed, clean the bathroom, wash the car and do any number of chores that challenge older and disabled people. Eldercare robots, Engelberger predicted, could one day be a bigger business than the entire industrial robot market, though he is still traveling to Europe and the Far East in search of a manufacturer willing to develop and market such a robot.

The blunt-spoken Engelberger said he was troubled by some of the directions the robotics industry is going. The walking robots that Honda and Sony are developing as personal care robots are marvels of technology, he acknowledged, but are inherently unstable. He prefers wheeled robots.

And Kismet, the celebrated Massachusetts Institute of Technology robot that can express emotions through facial expressions is "a waste of technology," he maintained, adding, "Who cares about a robot's feelings?"

Existing technology provides a rich tool kit for developing new robots to meet mankind's needs, Engelberger told his audience of student and faculty members yesterday.

"There's plenty of room for more accomplishment," he said.


Byron Spice can be reached at bspice@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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