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."

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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