By Collin Corcoran
On November 17th, 2015, in the first ever dual speaker C2ST Speakeasy event, Kathleen McCarthy and Anna Brill took the stage of Geek Bar to showcase the newest exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry: Robot Revolution.
This impressive exhibit features 40 robots from nine different countries, with a majority from the US, Germany, and Japan. A robot exhibit has existed before, but this scope is the largest the robotic field has ever seen. This unprecedented exhibit did not just appear overnight; it took five years to prepare. The preparation included researching the constantly changing robot technology, traveling the world to gain insight from industry experts, planning the scope and structure of the exhibit, and acquiring three robot specialists to maintain and care for the army of robots. The Robot Revolution is not limiting itself to Museum of Science and Industry; it will continue on to travel the world for four years, with Denver, Colorado as its next stop. And the robot lineup will not be the same in the end as it is now in the Museum of Science and Industry. McCarthy plans on updating the exhibit as new and exciting technology is released to keep the robots as state-of-the-art as possible.
The exhibit is broken down into four content areas to help categorize and distinguish the robots from one another: Cooperation, Smarts, Skills, and Locomotive. McCarthy shared the importance of having the Cooperation segment first. The Cooperation segment answers the question of “why we care?” and details the future of robots AND humans working together. Some examples of robots in the Cooperation segment include a robot assisting with surgery, robots playing soccer, and a robotic seal used for therapy. One of the keys to successful cooperation between robots and humans depends on the robots’ emotional capabilities. McCarthy related a robot lacking empathy to a friend who does not have emotions.
The second segment of the exhibit is Smarts, which demonstrates the vast programming capabilities that can be incorporated into robotics. One robot, Baxter, is helping to change the manufacturing industry. Baxter can be placed on an assembly line and easily programmed to do simple tasks, like picking parts up, sorting them, and placing them in different boxes. Other features of these smarty-pants robots include face recognition and autonomous driving.
The third segment of Robot Revolution is called Skills. Plain and simple, robots are faster than humans and can be automated to do things in shorter time and with less error. For example, there is a robot in the exhibit that can play cards, and one that can shoot a ping-pong ball into a solo cup, an invaluable skill in college.
Locomotive is the final segment of the exhibit. The robots in this category show off different ways of walking, rolling, and jumping around. One of the robots is actually used in military applications because of its ability to traverse rough terrain and enter dangerous areas to scope out the situation.
McCarthy understood that these robots would need quite a bit of TLC in order to operate on a daily basis and keep the visitors entertained. Anna Brill is one of these featured robot specialists, who is a current mechanical engineering student at the University of Pennsylvania. Brill’s high school experience with the FIRST robotics competition first sparked her interest in robotics. At UPenn, she does research in the Kodlab on a robot called RHex, a 6-legged, tailed leaping robot that was inspired by a cockroach. A cockroach may sound like a strange inspiration for a robot, but Kodlab strives to replicate nature in their robots’ movement and functionality. No one beats Mother Nature when it comes to design. Brill recently published her first paper and was able to present it at a conference in Germany. Brill was able to provide the Speakeasy audience with insight into a day in the life of a robotics specialist.
Brill started by stating that each day was different and never boring, essentially because she had 40 mechanic kids to take care of. The first thing Brill does when she gets to the Museum is start to turn on the robots. She saves the robots running on batteries for last to maximize their life during the day. Switching and charging batteries is actually one of the largest tasks of the robot specialists, aided by a battery chart with color coordination to help organize all the batteries’ rotations. Brill admitted her favorite part of her job is repairing the robots and getting her hands dirty.
To be most efficient, the robot specialists decided to divide and conquer the robots. Each specialist spends most of their time with certain robots, which led to Brill having a few nicknames. These include Swarm Queen, Soccer Mom, and RHexpert. As the Swarm Queen, Brill cares for the swarm robots that can move and interact with each other, like insects do, to create shapes or follow the leader. Soccer Mom Brill also makes sure that her soccer robots get to their game on time. She maintains 18 soccer-playing robots and rotates them every 30 minutes to keep the players legs (I mean batteries) fresh. Brill described how the specialists tear down the soccer robots every Saturday to inspect, tighten, and clean each component. The tear down greatly helped in preventing malfunctions during the never-ending soccer tournament. McCarthy admitted that if she could have one robot in her life she would want to have the soccer robots in her home so she could watch in admiration all day long. Brill’s last nickname comes from the robot she started working with during her research at Kodlab at UPenn: RHex. Unfortunately for Brill, she admitted that because it is a research robot, it breaks a lot.
The part of the job that most surprised Brill is interacting with excited kids (and parents) and answering questions. To further involve the visitors in the exhibit, the robot garage is completely visible. (No hiding for Brill.) The robot garage reveals all the batteries being stored and charged, the spare and broken parts, and the specialists like Brill working to keep the exhibit running. McCarthy stressed the importance of having the garage as part of the exhibit because it shows the behind-the-scenes and dirty work.
McCarthy and Brill were able to borrow a couple robots from the exhibit and pass them around for the lucky Speakeasy participants. The first robot was Paro, the therapeutic seal from the Cooperation segment, also featured in Aziz Ansari’s show Master of None on Netflix. McCarthy used Paro’s history to explain how iterative robot design can be. Paro actually started out as a cat. However, a therapeutic cat was not helpful to those with allergies to real cats. Also, cats are so common and well-known that it was difficult to create a life like robot version.
The second robot for display was RobotIS Mini. This human-like robot, only about a foot tall, loves to show off. With its remote control, RobotIS could walk in any direction, do a handstand, split, pushup, and wave back to you. McCarthy described the reasoning behind RobotIS Mini’s name. Created for educational and learning purposes, the name is supposed to reflect its open-ended functionality, like “this robot IS ___________.”
In the end, it was evident that McCarthy and Brill were passionate about the field of robotics and the exciting future of the technology. When McCarthy first started at the Museum of Science and Industry, a robot exhibit was her dream, so she is especially thrilled about this coming to life. Hopefully, the Robot Revolution conveys to the public that robots are going to be a bigger and bigger part of our daily lives. Cooperation between humans and robots will require a shift in our attitude toward them and this exhibit intends to start that conversation. If we are able to incorporate and understand them better, they can change our lives for the better. I mean, who doesn’t want a self-driving car…
The Robot Revolution exhibit closed January 3rd. More information can be found at robotrevolution.com.
— Collin Corcoran is a mechanical engineer and C2ST volunteer. He has a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Notre Dame.