Tuesday, December 05, 2006

The robots are coming... And they’ve been programmed by 10 year olds!

On November 27th and 28th Bath University hosted the First Lego League, a worldwide annual event involving school children between 9-16 years old. It being a Lego competition, all robots must use the Lego RCX or NXT bricks for ‘brains’ and the rest of the robot must be built using only Lego parts. The kids then have to program the robots to successfully complete the various Nanotechnology missions.
The robot starts out from a base, and then races off to complete as many of the 9 missions as possible in the allotted 2 mins and 30 secs. Some mission examples include getting the robot to release a bucky ball containing smart medicine into bone marrow, start a molecular motor, initiate molecular self-assembly or test the strength of a nano tube.

Sounds complicated and very difficult even for such intelligent students of life as yourselves? Wondering how a 10-year old can do it? You will be amazed at what children can do! Yours truly happened to be refereeing the competitions over the two days the event ran for, and I have to say there was some ingenious work going on. The children were full of confidence and being cheered on by CBBC celebrities Anne Foyle and Ade Adepitan certainly seemed to help (not to mention all the chocolate, balloon fashion shows, URB music and pyrotechnics).
Surely these kind of events show that science can be fun, exciting and educational at the same time. Let’s hope that this event has inspired the next generation of roboticists and engineers to go on and create an (environmentally friendly and ethical) brave new world filled with the wonders of nanotechnology.

A LEGO tournament in action. This picture is not from Bath, but the setup is identical

The importantance of this was further stressed during a Bristol Café Scientifique evening (27th November) where Dr. Alan Winfield posed the question, “How would you feel if your robot vacuum cleaner asked you not to switch it off? We were given a brief history of modern robotics, including some of today's uncanny looking robots like Cronos (machine consciousness project, see also previous post) and EVA (an 'artificial empathasizer'). The discussion centred around the ethics of conscious machines and trying to figure out exactly what it all means (we don’t know). There was a clear schism between those who believed in the evolved (benevolent) robot kind and those fearing dehumanisation. These are very big questions indeed, and you might find their relevance tricky (unless you spend your time in Star Trek land where DATA rules). If they seem irrelevant to you, please read my previous entry which covers this subject in more depth.

Perhaps an anthropomorphic point of view will help you get the idea: spare a thought for the super-evolved IPodRobo which just loves to play music and wished you never, ever switched it off because then it feels so, so very lonely and sad...

Check out this video of EVA - a bit uncanny eh' ?

This article was originally written for the Bath University Student paper 'Impact'

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