Science center honors robots

Pitt News Staff | April 10, 2008    

While Mayor Luke Ravenstahl signed the proclamation declaring yesterday “Carnegie Science… While Mayor Luke Ravenstahl signed the proclamation declaring yesterday “Carnegie Science Center Robot Day,” he wasn’t the man who presented it.

That honor went to someone much closer to the world of robotics, Anthony Daniels, better known as C-3P0 in all six “Star Wars” movies.

Wearing a black suit and a bright metallic-looking gold bow tie, Daniels hosted the fourth annual Robot Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the Science Center and was also present for the announcement of the center’s latest exhibit, “Roboworld.”

The Hall of Fame, which was created by Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Computer Science, is just now moving to the center. It includes entertainment-based robots as well as real ones.

“The fictional robots have perhaps done more to inspire [research in this area],” said Jo Haas, the center’s director.

“The Robot Hall of Fame … has been a child of the university for years now but it didn’t have a home,” Daniels said.

Daniels, who is an adjunct professor for the Entertainment Technology Center and one of the jurors who decides the inductees, played his master of ceremony’s role well to the audience’s delight. When a cell phone beeped, Daniels looked up abruptly and said: “R2?”

Then, quoting the movie, he said: “R2D2, where are you?”

The Robot Hall of Fame inducted four new robots: Lt. Cmdr. Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” LEGO Mindstorms, NavLab 5 and Raibert Hopper.

NavLab 5 is a Pontiac Trans Sport minivan that uses computer and video sensors to drive with no human hand control on the wheel.

It navigated a 3,000-mile route from Pittsburgh to San Diego on a test run with a 98.2 percent success rate in 2005.

Zachary Quinto, an actor on the TV show “Heroes” and a Carnegie Mellon grad, accepted the award for Data, a fictional android. Quinto will also play Spock in the upcoming “Star Trek” movie.

The LEGO Mindstorms is a robotics tool kit, and Marc Raibert’s Hopper robot introduced the concept that a robot could balance. It has only one leg and a body and was developed at Carnegie Mellon and MIT.

Haas said that while Pittsburgh’s universities are becoming hubs for robotic and entertainment technology, there isn’t a place for the public to interact with and enjoy the robots.

Roboworld will be the answer to that problem.

The exhibit will span 6,000 square feet, will open in spring 2009 and will host three sections: sensing, thinking and acting. Visitors will be able to see how robots understand their environment, how they understand data and what they’re like physically.

“Pittsburgh is the perfect place for an exhibition of this kind,” Haas said.

In the theme of the evening, there were other opportunities for robot-human interaction at last night’s event.

Before the induction ceremony, guests from Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute and the Entertainment Technology Center and the Science Center mingled with Daniels and other Carnegie Mellon robots.

One, Quasi, a petite, animatronic silver robot, sat on a table and heckled and engaged in conversation with passersby.

When asked if he could do tricks, he said, “What am I? A dog?”

However, he was a friendly robot, despite being dressed as Darth Vadar, and offered to dance with a little girl who visited him.

While no “Star Wars” robots were inducted – R2-D2 was inducted in 2003, the inaugural year and 3P0 went in the year after – it was a “Star Wars” evening.

The induction ceremony began with the familiar “Star Wars” movie opening. Rolling text told the space saga from C-3P0’s point of view and drifted into the galaxy.

Memorable clips of 3P0’s film life were also shown.

Earlier in the day, Daniels imitated 3P0’s impeccable posture for a small, smiling crowd and gave a rendition of his lines from the two trilogies.

When asked if he’s played other robots, he said 3P0 would be jealous if he did.

Also in attendance was Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker in the first “Star Wars” trilogy. Hamill spent his third-grade year in Pittsburgh while his dad was in the Navy and spent most of yesterday scouting for a future film project titled “Black Pearl.”

He called Pittsburgh a very photogenic city and a great juxtaposition of the old and the new.

Hamill added that he loves doing events centered on robot advancement, especially at the university level.

“I’ve been around people that are clearly more successful, like my brother Dr. Hamill, because let’s face it, science trumps the arts.” he said.

“But anytime I can support [academics] by physically being here, supporting these events, how can anyone say no to charity or academics?”

Daniels opened the Hall of Fame ceremony with a series of jokes, including some about his counterpart.

“I’ve been very intimate with a certain robot for 30 years,” Daniels said. “No, I don’t mean R2D2.”

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