Chicago Museum Showcases ‘Robot Revolution’

An exhibit at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry displays how machines are empowering humans and transforming America's future.

by Steve Johnson, Chicago Tribune / May 22, 2015
The University of Washington's Neurobotics Lab's prosthetic hand is a close replica to the real thing. According to the university, researchers are working to integrate it with the human nervous system. Flickr/M. Levin, University of Washington

(TNS) — On the one hand, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry says it wants its big new showcase for cutting-edge robotics to dispel fear about the soulless mechanized creatures rising up and taking the place of humans. “The point we try to make is that it’s robots and humans, not robots or humans,” said John Beckman, director of exhibit design and development. “They don’t do anything that they’re not programmed to do.”

On the other hand, the museum did call the exhibition “Robot Revolution.” The American Revolution, to name one, was not about the togetherness of Americans and British.

But we get it, we get it. The revolution detailed here — the show was set to open with a robot named Baxter cutting a ribbon — is not by the robots, but by the people making and programming them, and it’s sweeping across society in the same way that a Roomba sweeps across a carpet.

Well, no, bad analogy. A Roomba, probably the best known and most widely available modern robot — it’s the one you can buy at Target — really kind of putters across a carpet. It meanders across a carpet. It sucks up the dust but without the kind of dramatic, purposeful flourish that would truly represent the impact robots are having.

A Roomba is one of the 40-plus working robots in this temporary show, crafted in-house at the science museum and intended to travel to other institutions. Credit to the designers for giving the quotidian its due.

Mostly, though, the show is a riot of mechanical industrial arms, drones and crawlers, machines you can throw into a potentially lethal or toxic situation and use to learn how things look.

Some are inactive behind acrylic, but most, designed to be working robots for industry or law enforcement or medicine, are working here, too. Exhibit visitors get to drive them, grab with them, even play tic-tac-toe against them.

A handful of robots, squat and stocky, like, say, Wayne Rooney, play soccer on a field the size of about two ping-pong tables. Designed, for some reason, to look like poker chip carousels, they whir purposefully about, passing the golf ball to one another, trying to circumvent the clever robot defenders, and firing the ball like a forceful spit when they spot an opening.

Six-on-six robot soccer is an ongoing thing, with regular tournaments, including one in World Cup cities every four years, said Kathleen McCarthy, the museum’s director of collections and co-director, with Beckman, of the robot exhibition project.

One robot, intended to be an assembly-line whiz, deals three hands of blackjack to visitors, one to himself, a talent that his makers developed to show off his skill set. His dexterity, with suction cup hands and an arm that moves on multiple axes, is astonishing. Ask (via iPad) for one card too many and he hoovers up your losing hand, deposits the cards precisely into a used card well and moves on to the next player, not yet a loser. Give this guy a little room — and remove the acrylic shield — and he’d have your wallet next.

There’s a robot that helps a surgeon work remotely, another for helping people with damaged bodies walk. Two small robots can scale building walls; a humanoid one climbs a giant ladder in the museum’s rotunda. A cute Japanese robot in a skirt rides a unicycle with jaw-dropping precision; another went into the radiation zones at a critically damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant to show scientists what they were dealing with.

They all have names: Yume Robo, Recon Scout Throwbot XT, Robotis-Mini. Many have vaguely human — and I do mean vaguely human — features. A robot with a sort of face will sort of mimic your expressions; buttons can make it do “happy,” “sad,” “angry,” etc.

There is an “uncanny valley,” we learn, where the closer a robot looks and acts to a human, the more it unsettles us. At the nadir of this valley, depicted on a helpful graph, are zombies.

Then the graph rises back up again to depict the “healthy human.” It was their ilk that put this show together, a process that’s been a handful of years in the making. The show has been a dream of McCarthy’s since she got to the museum 14 years ago.

Coming in as a curator, she said, “when I was asked what I wanted to collect, without a moment’s hesitation, I said, ‘Robots.’ I understood at the time how transformative robots were going to be. Now we’re giving machines intelligence, independence and unbelievable capabilities.”

The team traveled worldwide looking at robots, securing loaner and gift units from many of the top companies and research facilities. Google came on board as lead sponsor; that company’s work on self-driving cars is featured in a video.

Top robotic experts, including Henrik Christensen of Georgia Tech, were brought on as advisers.

“It’s very hard to find another example that sort of brings together all of these technologies,” said Christensen. “To me that’s exciting.”

What’s also exciting, he said, is that “Robot Revolution” tells the story of “how the machines are empowering us,” rather than the Hollywood story “trying to paint the robots as an engineering disaster that the human race has to save . . . by pressing the reset button.”

Designed as a series of way stations in an open room, the show is jangly, a little bit cacophonous. You can bounce from robot to robot, pressing buttons, picking up toy balls, even doing some rudimentary robot coding.

It is very much in the here and now, leaning toward the future.

“This is not a history of robotics,” Beckman said. “This is showing you what’s out there right now and what’s being developed for the future.”

There is not, though, a whole lot of overview explanation trying to put the spread and scale of robotics into context. Quick and large are the answers we take away, but more exacting detail would be nice.

Science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s oft-cited Three Laws of Robotics don’t enter into it either, unless you count the presence of Baxter, one of a new generation of robots designed to be human compliant, meaning they’ll take people’s presence into account and not accidentally hurt them.

Here, Baxter plays tic-tac-toe, which would count as the nimble and environmentally sensitive machine’s highest best use only if you were the parent of an otherwise intractable toddler. Still, it’s impressive, the two simultaneous games he plays, one with each arm.

The sections of the exhibit highlight robot cooperation, skills, smarts and locomotion, and there are regular demonstrations, such as of a drone. Helpful hint: When the presenter says the word “drones,” then asks, “What’s something that you think of?” — don’t be the one to shout “Pakistan” or “American foreign policy.”

Exhibit planners emphasize that this is the only place the public can see such a number and variety of robots working in one place.

And it’s all highly engaging, bordering on spectacular — until you think about it again.

Wait a minute. Many of the top robots, carefully selected for their great variety of skills, assembled in one place. Lots of time for them to pass together at night, when the museum is closed. What could go wrong?

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