Visions of a Robot Future

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

Sherman delicately touches the tip of an antenna on his SnakeBot, which he built while still attending Tennyson High School. The snake -- which looks more like a mechanical caterpillar, with 10 servomechanisms, 20 wheels, and two sensitive "whiskers" for obstacle avoidance -- shies away from his finger, moving in a sine wave pattern similar to that of a biological serpent. This form of locomotion eliminates the need for legs, but eventually Sherman hopes to do away with the wheels as well.

"Wheels get stuck," says Sherman simply. "Snakes can go where wheels can't."

On a table nearby, a 3/4-inch working model of the Mars Pathfinder's "Sojourner Rover" -- built by SFRSA member and Positive Logic Engineering President Joe Miller -- sits on a table next to 17-year-old Steven Jian's TrikeBot. Currently, the TrikeBot is programmed to find and track the color red, then send pictures back to Jian's laptop. The robot catches sight of my hair and adjusts itself accordingly, leveling its cool reflecting "eye" at my pelt. I move a bit to the left and it cocks its "head" slightly; I stoop to my knees, and it ducks down on a cranelike neck supported by three wheels and a chassis; I stand up and it follows, twitching like a bird to keep me in its sights.

Farther down the line, 14-year-old Nick Khorlinwatches over the "little kids" as they operate a heavy-duty remote-control robot made by his teammates in Los Altos. Six-year-old Denny Singhgiggles as he causes the robot to scoop up tennis balls, then ram at full speed into Khorlin's foot.

"Hey, watch it, kid," admonishes Khorlin, who was in the process of explaining the relative dangers of his own robot. "I got hit last night. It really hurts, so we pulled it off the floor."

Down the hall, I struggle through the tightly packed crowd to watch the "ant-weight" competition -- 16-ounce remote-controlled robots fighting one on one in a small, elevated, fully enclosed, Plexiglas arena. It's like BattleBots for Barbie dolls. In another exhibition room, members of NASA demonstrate an exact clone of "Fido," the 2003 Mars Explorer rover, as the Seemen's Kal Spelletichoffers a more artful, low-cost alternative -- in the form of a giant claw regulated by a salvaged part from a Starbucks coffee-bean dispenser. David Calkins, president of the San Francisco Robotics Society of America, prepares the crowd for the Robot Sumo Competition, offering free T-shirts to the people who can name the only contestant ever to place first in both Sumo and BattleBots; the most expensive metal used in robotics; and the founder of BattleBots Magazine. Dozens of hands fly into the air. (The answers are: SFRSA champion Carlo Bertoccine, titanium, and Roy Hellen.)

The Sumo Competition -- fully autonomous and/or remote-controlled robots that compete in a circular ring, where they must identify the opponent and force it over a white line while evading the same -- begins. Despite the colorful language ("Please, no flash photography. A robot may identify the flash as an opponent and attack.") the bouts are, to me, lackluster. Leaving the roar and gasps of the crowd behind, I wander back down the hall to a quiet room.

"What would you like to see happen with robots in your lifetime?" I ask Mark Sherman.

"Consciousness," replies Sherman without hesitation. "Real thought, not just insectlike reflexes. The real thing. Computers that think."

I smile, images of a future dystopia dancing in my head.

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