[Isn’t this some cool robotics work with kids?]
When I was a boy I dreamed of having a robot who would make my bed, clean my room, basically do all my chores, but also act as a companion who would never get bored of my jokes and challenge me to be my best. In a way these thoughts evolved into the character Martha, the pseudo mother android in my most recent series of novels. Growing up in the 60’s and 70’s those ideas didn’t get much farther than fiction, but now my children are living the dream, well sort of. It’s summer, and like many parents we have lined up a series of camps to keep their minds active and help us retain our sanity. Martha is no push over or maid, and neither are the robots of today.
Two of my kids just finished robotics camp; one did Lego NXT for a week, and the oldest completed two weeks doing VEX IQ. On the last Friday there was a graduation exercise of sorts where two to three-person teams took their robot creation through a series of challenges. For 10 year olds in Lego NXT, the competitions involved throwing ping pong balls for distance, running a programmed maze, and head to head double elimination sumo wrestling. In the end the points for all three events were tallied and the teams were ranked by success. The robots had to excel at all three tasks to rank high.
For the 12 year old, there was a 4-ft by 8-ft box with three rows of 3-inch red, green, and blue plastic cubes. The graduation task involved moving as many cubes as possible over the goal line, and they could double their points if they could stack a cube on top of another. The first one minute round was done autonomously, the next four rounds were done with teammates alternating on driving the robot around with a controller repeating what the robot did first on its own.
The two competitions couldn’t have been more different. For the Lego NXT sumo and maze runs, the judges were subjective and inconsistent, resulting in some hurt feelings of several of the participants. Here they had spent an entire week building and refining their robot only to have its performance tainted by frequent human error of the judges. The VEX IQ competition was much more cut and dry, the blocks either made it on the or past the line or they didn’t. There was not a hurt feeling in the VEX IQ crowd, and parents weren’t getting involved in protests against the judges like they were for the younger Lego NXT campers. In the end all involved seemed to have fun, but it left me wondering about the lasting impression both sessions might have on the children participants.
As a parent I found myself pondering how to build on this experience for our kids. The camp wasn’t cheap, but neither is college or any other sort of life experience they are likely to have from this point on in their lives. Reflecting on my childhood, I recalled how the space race inspired me to become an engineer, and then how in 1976 the brother of my best friend shared stories of his bicycle journey across the USA which resulted in my passion for adventure. I found myself spending hours Friday night pricing and comparing the values of both the VEX and Lego systems.
In many ways it’s a toss up. VEX can be cheaper, but my kids have been playing with Legos since they were preschoolers so they are very familiar with these. Over the past ten years I have been fortunate to have met with robotics experts from all over the world, talked to university instructors, and seen designers creating amazing prototypes in their labs and trying them out in the field. If one of my kids wants to pursue a career in robotics, I sense I need to get them some kits to play with now so they’ll have the skills needed to succeed in college. And even if they do not choose to go into robotics, they’ll have fun building and destroying things which are relatively cheap and easy to repair. As in life, robotic trial and error is the path to success, and that lesson in itself is worth the price of the kits.
In the next twenty years we are likely to see amazing progress on the robotics front. These human replacements will manage our infrastructure, craft most of the things we need, deliver us safely wherever we desire to go, and could even serve us through our last moments of life. Remember Robin Williams in Bicentennial Man? If you haven’t seen the movie, it might be worth your time. For now the most I can do is to nurture their interest in this area, and maybe one or both of them will ensure robots continue to be forces of good instead of going the way of the Terminators or Cylons.