Electronic Design

A Complex Task: Real And Imaginary Robots Honored

The School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, one of the premier robotics research centers, recently established the Robot Hall of Fame to honor landmark achievements in robotics technology and the increasing contributions of robots to human endeavors.

James H. Morris, dean of the School of Computer Science, hosted the induction ceremony. He was assisted by Grace, a mobile robot developed by the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon.

Robots inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame are divided into two categories: robots from science, and robots from science fiction. The robots from science are real robots that have served an actual or potentially useful function. Those from science fiction must have achieved worldwide fame as fictional characters in books or films. Their notoriety must have helped shape our opinions about the functions and values of real robots now or to come.

The first four inductees were evenly divided among the two categories. The first was Unimate, a one-arm robot that helped start the robotics revolution in manufacturing. It is the forerunner of the tens of thousands of robot arms used in the assembly lines for products such as automobiles. The Unimate became part of the General Motors production line in 1961. The 4000-pound arm performed dozens of tasks over a 20-year "career." Unimate was conceived in 1956 by inventors George Devol and Joseph Engelberger when they met to discuss science fiction.

The Sojourner Rover was the other real-world robot inducted into the hall of fame. This little six-wheel vehicle flew to Mars as part of NASA's Pathfinder mission.

Sojourner only moved about half a meter per minute, but it spent a great deal of time in one place so its array of sensors could examine its environment. It only traveled 100 meters, exploring 250 m2 of Martian surface and sending back 2.3 Gbits of information. This included thousands of images from the lander and hundreds from Sojourner's camera.

Sojourner was an economic marvel. It ran a dozen times longer than its original seven-day plan. Its final transmission was on September 27, 1997, but it lives on at the Hall of Fame.

In a film of epic proportions, we were introduced to the HAL 9000, a science-fiction inductee and the heart of the Discovery spaceship in Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

HAL stands for "Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer." HAL understood English and could even read lips. It controlled the entire ship and still had time to beat its occupants at chess. It was a super computer.

Although it escaped many movie goers, HAL went a little nuts because of conflicting tasks. Programmed not to lie, HAL was also told by those on Earth about one set of mission parameters that the astronauts onboard were not aware of. Eventually HAL killed part of the crew, and the last crew member gave HAL an electronic lobotomy.

HAL and the movie have been an inspiration to many astronauts, pilots, engineers, and scientists. The movie remains one of the best science fiction classics of all time.

R2-D2, the other science-fiction inductee, is a central character in another science fiction classic, the Star Wars saga. R2-D2, along with C-3P0, appear in all the films to date. C-3PO translates R2-D2's noisy vocabulary into English.

At 0.96 meters tall, R2-D2 is an adorable droid. It is an expert at communicating with other computers, making it an integral part of an X-wing fighter. R2-D2 may not have the best lines in the film, but he saves the day more than once per film. In the process, R2-D2 is spontaneous, loyal, and sociable—traits that are hard to replicate in real life.

The Carnegie Science Center Robotics Exhibit includes a special Robot Hall of Fame kiosk about the robot inductees and the jury members that selected them. Plaques honoring the robots inducted into the Robot Hall of Fame are on public display at the School of Computer Science in Newell Simon Hall on the Carnegie Mellon University campus.

CMU Robot Hall of Fame

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