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Robotics, For the Rest of Us

Hector Hernandez

Recently, I attended a public talk by Professor Rodney Brooks, director of Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The talk, titled “Space Exploration and Robotics,” was part of a new lecture series sponsored and held at the MIT Museum with support from the Boston Globe. Part of the MIT Museum’s plan to change its programming and image, the series is being broadcast as “saloon-style, early-evening conversations with scientists and engineers who are making the news that really matters.”

Although I was excited when I learned about it from the MIT web site, I wondered whether it would truly be an opportunity for discussion, or just another chance for an MIT professor to toot his own horn.

Even before the talk, the first thing that I noticed was the audience’s excitement as it waited. Members of the MIT and non-MIT communities intermingled, and conversations sputtered as individuals searched for common topics to discuss. By the time the talk began, expectations were running high.

The setting for the talk, the robotics gallery, could not have been a more ideal place for Brooks to share his personal views and expectations regarding the use of robots in space and in everyday life. Surrounded by the metallic creatures which are part of his life, Brooks shared his vision for the development of space exploration.

He painted a picture of autonomous robots preparing a landing site and habitat for humans to settle, and made sure to note both benefits and pitfalls of such exploration. Although he made clear the importance of robots, Brooks asserted his belief that their ultimate purpose was to assist humans in their exploration of space.

Brooks then moved on to the role of robotics on earth, explaining how our lives are being enhanced by new developments in robotic and sensor technologies. He explained how research in CSAIL and other areas is working toward developing robots better able to perform tasks outside of the manufacturing and office sector.

Following the talk, individuals broke off and formed groups to discuss and formulate questions, which Brooks answered informally but with attention and care.

At the conclusion of the evening, I was enthralled by the disposition and camaraderie of the audience. Here were people of all ages and walks of life sitting together having meaningful discussions about scientific advancements and potential effects on their lives. The genuine concern and excitement for the topics presented by Brooks made for a delightful and educational evening.

The MIT Museum has always tried to maintain a working relationship with the community, but it has not always been successful in attracting top scientific researchers to address the members of the greater community about how MIT research can change their lives. I felt a glimpse of hope as I saw the excited face of an eight year old as he examined a “spider” robot while learning about how these small mechanical beings play a role in exploration both on earth and in space.

If there is a chance for us to ignite an interest in science and engineering in this country, we need more programs like this one started at the MIT Museum. We need more professors to take to the pulpit, or the soapbox, and with clear concise words explain to our audiences the science and engineering wonders we encounter every day. Be sure to catch the next “Soap Box” on Feb. 21, when Professor Donald R. Sadoway discusses alternatives to hydrogen fuel. Previous talks can be viewed on the MIT Web site.

Soap Box Web site:

MITWorld Web site: