Domo arigato Mr. Roboto.
When you think of human-robot interactions, you may think of fictional characters like C3PO and Bender from Futurama or more true to life interactions like your Roomba. Whether it is fictional or non-fictional applications of robots, we as humans tend to anthropomorphize our metal companions in ways that tend to make them more social and easier to accept. STYX may have been way ahead of their time with their song “Mr. Roboto” and the implications they insinuate in their song (don’t believe me, re-listen to it!), but in our current day and age science fiction is quickly turning into science-fact. As a result of the increasing interactions humans are experiencing with robots, people are having to re-examine the effects these interactions are having on society and researching ways to make these non-biological automatons more companion like (think pets) and as a result easier to cohabitate with. This research and robot-integration is taking place across a myriad of various levels of education, starting now in grade-school and running the gamut, and is not only educational for all those involved, but can be loads of fun!
My most recent glimpse into this introduction and education of social robotics took place this past Thursday during an NCWIT Social Robotics Workshop held at the SUNY College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering. At this workshop, conducted by Dr. Goodall and Katy DeCorah, Eighth-grade students were given an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the NXT Mindstorms robotics platform and some core principles of the programming that makes these robots work. While at first glance the robots may appear to be the most prevalent focal point during this workshop (what kid wouldn’t want to play with legos!?), it quickly became clear that they were merely a tool to facilitate an active dialogue with the kids on their own ideas and interactions with robots (movies, books, toys,etc.). During this workshop, students were asked to perform increasingly more complex tasks with their new “wallE” like pals that culminated in a challenge to get their robots to drive in a square pattern, a task that quickly pitted the student groups against one another to see who could get their robot to perform a better square. The last concept delivered to these students was the concept of social robotics and the idea that robots can and should be polite and work harmoniously with its’ human companion. With that idea planted, the students were given free reign to program their robot companions to be more social by adding sounds, emoticons to the lcd readout, and provisions in the programming to utilize onboard sensors to avoid hitting objects and/or to be more social about the collision.
The ultimate goal of this workshop was to just introduce younger students to the concept of social robotics and to get them interested in computer science and technology in general. My take on the workshop was that it was not only wildly successful and fun for the students, but it was also exciting and educational for the mentors who worked the workshop. As one of those mentors I can honestly say that I had loads of fun working with the Lego Mindstorms platform and even more fun working with my fellow classmates. The younger students got to learn about technology, and the mentors all got to learn a little bit more about each other. In a way, it was kind of a team building exercise, and a workshop, and playtime all mixed into one. It is my humble opinion that events like this will play a dominant role in introducing various technological concepts to younger students, especially those who come from areas where technology may not be as popular are widely available, and I know I will seek to participate in future workshops.
Eric M. Palmatier
Senior, Information Science