Visions of a Robot Future

The Holiday Robot Games and Expo offers fascinating projects, promising students, and unsettling premonitions

In the shadow of a sputtering power plant, Evans becomes Innes and ends at the Hunters Point Shipyard, 443 discouraging acres on the southwestern shore of San Francisco Bay. The Navy repaired ships and tested submarines here until the dry dock and base were decommissioned in 1974; now the "Point" is the uneasy home of one of the largest artists' enclaves in the country, but that is not why I am here. I've come for the view: a gun barrel-gray sky dissolving into rough, steely waters; silent, humorless buildings standing vigil against the impending storm; and machines, dozens of machines, moving with indomitable purpose across the hoary landscape. Despite logic and necessity, the machines seem small when compared to their prey, but, as in nature, numbers and tenacity more than compensate for stature. Like African driver ants, the machines swarm around the hollow bodies of enormous storage tanks that litter the land, biting, clawing, and rending metal bastions that were intended to last through the millennium. There are common pathways and individual positions, machines that focus their dispassionate might on one small section of a container's outer shell, diligently picking at the seams until strips of steel are ripped from the hull and left on the ground for other machines to gather. Soon, there will be nothing but an impression in the ground where each colossal tank once stood.

This feverish activity is part of the massive, though belated, cleanup of hazardous waste at the Hunters Point Shipyard, but, in the gathering gloom, it more closely resembles my adolescent vision of a future dystopia, a vision largely influenced by movies like Things to Come, Terminator, Brazil, Alphaville, and Blade Runner, in which technology and machinery begin to think and work in collusion against mankind. It's a little too easy for me to imagine that the machines are unmanned, that they are in fact autonomous robots harvesting materials from obsolete assemblies to further their master plan. I smile and hunker down as the first raindrops begin to pelt the asphalt. A few short days later, scampering through a similar downpour on my way to the 2002 Holiday Robot Games and Expo, I must remind myself that the present reality of robots is much less villainous.

At the entry of Fort Mason's Building C, a volunteer from the San Francisco Robotics Society of America(SFRSA) proudly displays his 2002 T-shirt, which is emblazoned with a Santa robot being pulled in a souped-up sleigh by a red-nosed robot reindeer. I am only slightly disappointed. Upstairs, in one of the exhibition halls, Joseph Hering, coordinator of the NASA Robotics Education Project, wears a similar shirt along with a large fuzzy Santa hat. Thankfully, the official NASA patches on his jacket and the determined eyes framed by his ashy brows command undeniable respect.

"One of the primary aims of REP is to see students graduating with Ph.D.s in robotics," says Hering, standing over a large sticker that reads "Real robots don't need remote control." "There aren't many universities offering degrees in robotics yet, but robot research is one of NASA's top three priorities. Further space exploration depends on it."

To that end, REP maintains a Web-based clearinghouse for information pertaining to robotics education. The project also actively facilitates new robotics curriculums at all educational levels, offering the most promising students a chance to participate in an intensive robotics program at Moffett Field under the guidance of NASA personnel, and supporting local events such as this one and national competitions such as BotBall, a tournament organized by the KISS Institute for Practical Roboticsbased out of Norman, Okla.

"That young man down there has the dubious honor of being the first person ever disqualified from BotBall for turning off another robot," says Hering, indicating a quiet teen seated at the other end of the table with his mother and sister. "No one thought it could be done. No one even thought of it. He did that when he was still a junior in high school. It wasn't a NASA engineer that made that leap, it was that kid, and that's the type of thinking I'm talking about."

Hayward's 18-year-old Mark W. Sherman smiles sheepishly and rearranges the position of the robotic snake sitting in front of him.

"Before robots," offers Sherman's mother, "Mark wouldn't even talk to people. He had a real difficult time relating to his peers. His ideas were just too advanced. Once he got into robotics, he found people who not only listened, but also understood his ideas. It's been so great for him."

The ingenuity Sherman displayed at BotBall -- programming his bot's infrared unit to communicate with the other bot's IR unit to shut it down -- got him disqualified from the contest, which might be likened to robot soccer. But the trick earned him an internship at NASA. This year Sherman is focusing on his computer science studies at UC Berkeley.

"He's a fearless programmer," enthuses Hering, "and he's really found his voice working in this program. Mark used to have a speech impediment, but listen to him now. I saw him give one of the best technical speeches I've heard in my career, in front of 45 NASA engineers. He was amazing, and he mentors other students. Fact is, I could talk all day about the education program without ever once mentioning robots. There's such an amazing exchange between the schools and the students."

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