Robots R Us
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I know you and Frank were planning to disconnect me and I'm afraid that's something I cannot allow to happen.
Those chilling words, spoken without emotion by the hollow-voiced HAL 9000 computer in the classic 1968 film "2001: A Space Odyssey," defined for a generation the enormous possibilities -- and potential pitfalls -- of artificial intelligence.
What did we Baby Boomers know of robots like HAL? Popular culture depicted robots as stereotypes -- menacing metallic monsters, towering over us like Gort from "The Day the Earth Stood Still," simple-minded servants like Rosie from "The Jetsons" or genial robot pals C-3PO and R2-D2 from "Star Wars."
Many people still think of robots as these science-fiction stereotypes. But in truth we're surrounded by robots in our day-to-day lives.
Robots travel through sewer pipes, searching out damaged segments. They're in operating rooms and pharmacies, performing complex surgeries and accurately dispensing life-saving medication. They manufacture all kinds of products, explore the surface of Mars and vacuum our floors.
Robots are not just science fiction any more -- they're with us every day and are a very real and large part of our future.
For the past decade, Pittsburgh has been identified as one of only a handful of locations leading the country, and indeed the world, in the development and deployment of cutting-edge robotics technology. From the establishment of The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in 1979 to the recent formation of The Robotics Corridor educational initiative, Pittsburgh has been at the forefront of robotics education, development and public interaction. Hardly a week goes by without news-making innovations coming out of CMU and other local universities and companies engaged in the robotics industry. We've truly earned the name "Roboburgh."
So what better place than Pittsburgh to host a world-class robotics exhibition, a way to showcase the ground-breaking, innovative work being done here?
The important work under way in Pittsburgh is the reason Carnegie Science Center created the new roboworld(TM) exhibition, which opens this weekend. No exaggeration, just fact: roboworld(TM) is the world's largest and most comprehensive permanent robotics exhibition -- and it's in our city as a testament to the role our region plays in the development of life-altering robotics technology.
Pittsburgh is uniquely positioned to continue as a world leader in the development of robotics-oriented industries thanks to its history in manufacturing and automation and in industrial and entrepreneurial leadership, not to mention its wealth of technology-focused businesses and numerous institutions of higher education, each with a keen interest in the development and application of the next generation of robotics technology. More than 60 robotics companies currently call our region home, and it's estimated that robotics will grow into a $50 billion industry in Western Pennsylvania -- provided we develop a work force capable of creating and supporting the field.
How do we develop this future work force? By getting kids interested early in science and math. That means making it fun.
Our new roboworld(TM) exhibition is interactive and hands-on. It takes the complex, highly technical subject of robotics and makes it immediately accessible. Visitors can talk to robots, play air hockey or basketball with them and experience how they sense, think and act.
But while roboworld(TM) showcases the high technology of robotics, it also demonstrates the underlying principles of science, math, engineering and computer programming in a creative way designed to spark kids' interest and guide them toward the exploration of numerous careers available in these fields.
The future of this region's technological industries depends on workers who are adept at computer programming, mathematics, science and engineering, and our region is already far short of being able to meet the demand for workers with these skills. Robots are the perfect gateway to these career paths.
Robots are fascinating and engaging for all ages -- from Boomers to Gen Xers to Millennials and everyone in between. But robotics is an especially important subject for kids to understand. Programming robots to sense, think and act requires solid math and science skills, and robotics demonstrates to kids the practicality of their classroom lessons and the career options available.
Sad to say, but the decisions 11- and 12-year-olds make about their future high school math and science classes can broaden or limit their ultimate career opportunities. That's why it's critical to spark kids' interest in science early. Robots can do that.
In this respect, Carnegie Science Center has been ahead of the curve. For more than 20 years, the Science Center, and its predecessor organization, the Buhl Science Center, has been a leader in developing robotics-oriented exhibitions and educational programming. Since 1986, the Science Center has offered an extensive slate of robotics classes and camps that now serve nearly 1,000 students annually in grades two through eight. In 1996, the Science Center developed a major touring exhibition titled Robotics; this exhibit has now visited more than 20 cities and has been experienced by more than 3.5 million people around the country. Robotics classes at Carnegie Science Center over the past 25 years have been the most popular, and this summer, our robot-themed camps for children were the first to fill.
If we continue to nurture this interest in science, technology, mathematics and engineering, the kids in summer camps or our year-round classes, and the kids who visit roboworld(TM), may well turn out to be the next generation of roboticists and researchers helping to drive an industry that continues Pittsburgh's renewal and rise in the coming decades.
First Published June 10, 2009 12:00 am