Robots Are People Too, Except Not Really

By Shamus
on Jul 4, 2013
Filed under:

We went to the Carnegie Science Center last week and visited their “Robot Exhibit”. This was one of the most deeply offensive and blatantly anti-robot exhibits I’ve ever seen. As a long-time advocate for the differently-brained, I was shocked at how backward and bio-centric the whole thing was.

It began with the predictable reinforcing of old, outdated stereotypes:


Hey, I’ve got an idea! Let’s make fun of the free-will-impaired! Yeah! We can put it on a shirt!


The setup for the joke is that the restrooms are segregated for robots and non-robots. The punchline is that robots don’t use restrooms!


Typical bio-supremacists can’t tell the difference between robots and androids.


Let’s reassure all the robot-haters in the audience by making sure we only depict robots in positions of subservience.


Okay, I’m done acting like a jackass. For now. For the record, I’m 100% in support of treating robots like tools no matter how smart they get, as long as we make sure to program them to enjoy it.

While I don’t really have a problem with how the robot section depicts robots, I will say it’s probably the weakest exhibit they have right now. Most of the rest of the science center is wonderfully educational. (Their space stuff is excellent.) The typical station at an exhibit will serve as great conversation-starter for the kids. “Hey dad, why is all this stuff written sideways or upside-down?” Well, remember that in zero gravity there is no “sideways”… The exhibit has a little display to give you the basics and then you can discuss the particulars as their questions branch off.

My daughter Rachel getting a feel for how beds are shaped in space.
My daughter Rachel getting a feel for how beds are shaped in space.

It’s always a little embarrassing to have to say “I don’t know”. We don’t want to stop and Google it right there (particularly not on the phone) and we usually forget all the questions by the time we get home. Maybe next time we’ll record the questions so we can look them up later.

But the robot exhibit doesn’t really have much to offer, education-wise. Most of it is fictional robots and little stations talking about what robots might be able to do someday. I actually had a hard time getting my kids to stick around while I took these pictures. They find the robot exhibit boring because there’s no science to chew on. There’s not much to learn and no questions to ask.

Part of the problem is that when you say “robots” people often have wildly different ideas about what sort of technology you might be talking about. Most people will either assume you’re talking about intelligent machines (artificial intelligence) or ambulatory bipeds (the somewhat narcissistic drive to make robots that look like people) and very few will think of the most common type of robot, which is a single-purpose mechanical assembly line device. (The boring robo-arms that just tighten bolts all day.) I’d like if the exhibit began by teasing apart these various definitions and went forward from there. It takes up nearly an entire floor of the science center and most of it is just cool stuff to look at. That’s fine from an entertainment perspective, but it seems like there’s a missed opportunity here.

My daughter Esther discovers what it would be like to work on the outside of a spaceship. If you weren’t weightless in space. And you didn’t need to wear a spacesuit. And if spaceships were only twenty meters off the ground. So, it’s nothing like going on a spacewalk except that it takes a lot of nerve. And you know what? I call that a good lesson.
My daughter Esther discovers what it would be like to work on the outside of a spaceship. If you weren’t weightless in space. And you didn’t need to wear a spacesuit. And if spaceships were only twenty meters off the ground. So, it’s nothing like going on a spacewalk except that it takes a lot of nerve. And you know what? I call that a good lesson.

A lot of space is dedicated to non-moving fictional robots. So, sci-fi mannequins, basically. There’s a robot arm that throws basketballs and can throw endless perfect three-point shots. It’s cool, but they’ve had that thing since the 90’s, and we’ve done a lot with robots since then.

Still, the SCIENCE! center is a lot of fun and a great way to spend an afternoon. My only regret was that I wasn’t able to get Cave Johnson’s autograph.

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  1. guy says:

    The funny thing is, Carnegie Mellon University is also in Pittsburg and won the DARPA Grand Challenge.

  2. NoneCallMeTim says:

    Well, when it comes time to welcome our robotic overlords, I am sure you will be spared for your consideration shown in this post.

    This kind of ‘science’ exhibit is possibly due to the dumbing down of science, but from what you describe, it sounds like it belongs in an art gallery, rather than a SCIENCE! center.

    Probably not high brow enough though.

    • I suspect it is more lack of funds- they made an exhibit from what was available to them, assuming it would be able to last for a long time but, you know, robots and robot technology is changing so fast at this time that now it is horribly out of date. (It wasn’t bad 13 or so years ago when they brought it in.)

      • ENC says:

        This is what is a poor museum (broadly speaking) in America?

        Now I’m truly envious.

        Although I get scienceworks but it’s not exactly on the bigger side of things. We get lots of museums in Melbourne but they’re more cultural than science.

  3. DGM says:

    >> (the somewhat narcissistic drive to make robots that look like people)

    It’s not necessarily narcissism. Almost everything we make is designed to be used by humans, and a humanoid robot has the advantage of being able to use it all as easily as we can. Other forms make sense if you’re optimizing for specific tasks, but for general-purpose servants I imagine that the human form will be most convenient.

    • Tizzy says:

      Makes sense. Except for bipedal locomotion, which is a major pain. Do you know of any serious robot with two legs?

      • Weimer says:

        Serious Sam as an android? Maybe he IS already an android. Hm.

      • Scampi says:

        …and of any uses for a servant that might require him to…kick things? Why exactly would legs be preferable for anything except maybe climbing a staircase?

      • anaphysik says:

        But yes, bipedal locomotion is notoriously difficult to implement. (And even the most advanced bipedal robots move quite slowly.)

        • Soylent Dave says:

          Asimo, the best bipedal robot humans have ever made, walks like he’s shat himself.

          I’m not normally one for abandoning scientific innovation, but in this case I’ll make an exception. We need to give up on walking robots. They’re too silly and too hard.

          • krellen says:

            Many people – including many engineers – really don’t grasp just how elaborate a system the human body is. We have multiple controls in place to help keep us upright as well as individual processing ability many times that of most computer networks. Each person’s brain is basically a large country’s worth of internet, and we use most of that all the time – largely for tasks we don’t consciously think about but which are necessary for keeping our bodies functioning and mobile.

            Which is a verbose way of saying that, yes, walking is a remarkably complex problem that we’re probably not capable of solving any time soon.

          • Gary says:

            I would disagree with the statement: “We need to give up on walking robots. They’re too silly and too hard.”

            If engineers and scientists thought this way we would miss out on a LOT of innovations that we currently enjoy. Not every life-improving innovation was designed or thought up specifically for the purpose for which we now use it. Think of all the applications that could benefit from the robotic breakthroughs discovered during the process of trying to create a humanoid shaped robot. Think of the possible medical uses? Double amputees? Think of the processor advances we’d need to make all the human-like movements. We could use that CPU power for a number of things. Basically, by purposefully AVOIDING that line of technology, we could be limiting ourselves in other aspects of scientific discovery.

      • Chamomile says:

        Ambling about on legs allows for much more effective recovery of balance and movement across difficult terrain, especially terrain you don’t want to destroy (say, spilled china plates, several of which are still intact). Running on two legs is also pretty much the most efficient method of movement ever in terms of energy efficiency, but unlike humans, robots will probably never need to worry about conserving enough energy to run for miles at a time, so that’s probably not a big deal. Four- or six-legged robots would probably be the most efficient, except for two things:

        1) Each leg requires more material, but once we figure out how to get a robot to balance on two legs (no easy task!) it costs nothing to reproduce that software ad infinitum.

        2) A robot with six legs is probably going to creep out a lot of potential customers no matter what paint job you give it.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      True,but thats only correct for really advanced robots,that we currently simply cannot make.Even some of the simplest tasks,like for example digging a ditch with a shovel,require zounds of incredibly precise movements that just come natural to an adult human.Our bipedal robots still have trouble walking over a varied terrain,so imagine how much pain it would be for them to use our tools.

    • Mephane says:

      I think there is a vast difference between building robots with human proportions so that they can interact properly with tools and devices originally designed for humans, and catapulting robots into the uncanny valley with rubber skin and an obvious undertone of aiming for the inevitable sexbot (we all know that is going to happen, and it will be creepy).

    • topazwolf says:

      Building a robot that is perfectly capable of using all forms of human technology in perfect semblance of human seems impractical when you factor in the cost of the robot and the tool. Would it not be simpler to just make the tools self operating and more efficient? I for one would prefer to have a robot that can harvest crops extremely well when I need to harvest crops rather than a robot that can harvest crops fairly well (while being able to do everything other possible operation moderately well).

      The desire to make humanoid robots can really only be a product of narcissism or the desire to own sapient beings as property.

      • Pete says:

        Simplest/cheapest solution: find the closest desperate unemployed poor person.

        Humans are really good at human labor, y’see.

        (This is in no way intended as a slight against poor, desperate, unemployed, poor, or nearby people.)

      • SKD says:

        There are good arguments either way. Purpose-built single-function robots are very efficient at what they are designed to do but, with the exception of those which can be retooled to perform a limited range of tasks, that is all they are able to do. On the other hand, general-purpose robots designed to emulate the human form can use human tools to perform any tasks the human body is capable of doing. Also, the general-purpose versus purpose-built is not limited to humanoid versus non-humanoid robots.

        An easy analogy is found in the world of computers where you have small programs and focused OSes designed to perform extremely limited sets of tasks very well and efficiently, as well as general purpose OSes and programs which allow users to accomplish a wide range of tasks reasonably well. For example, the common router or server which does what it is designed to do for months or years reliably and efficiently while the desktop computer allows aits user to cruise the internet, read email, play games, draft documents, etc. but slower than a single purpose machine and with greater reliability problems.

        A robot designed to harvest crops would be very efficient at the task but would not necessarily be the most efficient design as the majority of the time it would be laid up in storage waiting for the crops to ripen which would make it a very expensive solution, besides the fact that you would need different robots for different crop types. A general purpose tractor type robot would be more efficient since it could swap attachments as needed to perform different tasks.

        • 4th Dimension says:

          Yes but in the last case you still don’t need a robot that looks like a human. Only an automatic tractor.

          Really only jobs where you would require bipedal locomotion is if the robot needs to navigate our homes because of stairs, but even than tracks or wheels can solve that problem more easily.

          What I’m saying is leave the arms in (or some variant of them) since they are multipurpose, but replace the legs with tracks or wheels.

          • thebigJ_A says:

            You anti-leg-ist.

          • Chamomile says:

            Wheels take up more space. Unless you’re doing something crazy like make a robot that balances on two wheels the same way we balance on two legs (which would defeat the purpose), a robot on wheels is going to have a frame that’s much, much broader than that of a human, making them incapable of going a lot of places a human might go. Since our homes are designed for humans and not robots, this means robots might barely be able to fit through narrow hallways when humans pass each other in the same sized hallways all the time by just turning sideways. This would be really inconvenient since it means whenever the robot is doing any work in the hallway, that hallway is inaccessible. Further, wheels require more room to turn, which means if a narrow hallways has multiple doors leading into bedrooms (like the one that’s ten feet away from me right now), the robot will be incapable of accessing the bedrooms.

            Trying to balance the robot on two wheels like a motorcycle will help a little bit (though turning may still be an issue), but will also lead to irritating balance problems, since motorcycles fall over when not in motion. Making the robot much smaller (say, dog-sized) will solve the problem but also bring along the problems of being much smaller, primarily that it can’t reach the top cupboards anymore.

            • topazwolf says:

              Problem: The high cost of creating a domestic robot that can accurately perform tasks while navigating human living space.

              Solution: Spend money on automating the house itself. Use rumba like robots for floor cleaning (perhaps small ones for counter space with bonus points for having them get to counter spaces via helicopter locomotion though failing that mouse-hole style easements can be installed for their use). Have lawns mowed by automatic lawn mowers. Have food prepared by self contained units. More advance tasks could be performed by very specialized units.

              The beauty of this solution is that slight advancement in automation would make such a house possible in the very near future. Besides, why bother building a knife with a spatula, can opener, gun, toaster, hammer, Tesla coil, etc when you can get a knife, spatula, can opener, gun, toaster, hammer, Tesla coil, etc for the same price. Versatility is not necessary better in terms of function.

  4. Daemian Lucifer says:

    *sigh*Why do we need fictional robots in a science museum,when actual robots already are fun?Heck even the greek myths about hephaestus’s artificial men are cool.And what about golems?Everyone loves golems.Or how about leonardos robot?I am disappoint.

    Doubly disappointing is the fact that I see none of the really cool robots,like bender,ed209 and hk47.

  5. Weimer says:

    They could always import one of those Japanese human-looking robotic abominations (robominations?) and cackle like a madman when the peasants shit their pants.

    I imagine they won’t show anything scientific about robots because most of it would be either boring code or mere theoretical ideas and prototypes. We have escaped Newton’s Cage, but we haven’t breached Turing’s one.. at least not yet.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      How is this boring or theoretical?

      Or heck,why not just display lego.Any kid can now make their own robot(if their parents are made of money that is).

      • Weimer says:

        Are those remote-controlled or independent? I saw someone fiddling with a controller there. I’d be impressed if the fight was left entirely to the ‘bots.

        • Atarlost says:

          Either. Both. The controller stores instructions that I think are created as flowcharts in custom software, but can also take inputs from a controller.

    • SKD says:

      To reiterate a point Shamus made: Robot does not equal AI. and a corollary AI does not equal robot.

      The Turing test is a measure of artificial intelligence and therefor not applicable to robots in general, only to the subset which is designed to be sentient and or sapient.

    • swenson says:

      I went through the Ford Rouge plant once and was rather fascinated by the robots there–especially the windshield robot arms. They’re just sort of mesmerizing in how perfectly they pick up this huge piece of glass and place it precisely every single time, while humans scurry around it, being a whole lot less precise.

      It sounds kinda silly, but when you see them in action, it’s pretty cool!

  6. Kevin J, says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed the skewering of political correctness :) and dead on about modern robotics being a lot more prosaic than the robots of our youth (C3PO, Twiki, Old B.O.B…)

    • Deoxy says:

      That particular type of skewering actually happens in the real world, from time to time…

      Like James O’Keefe telling his college that having Lucky Charms in the cafeteria was racist against him for the Irish stereotypes. Yes, they removed the Lucky Charms.

      It would be funny if it weren’t so ridiculous.

  7. Aldowyn says:

    Yay robots! I was on a FIRST robotics team for a couple of years, and it was pretty awesome. The last year was basically basketball except with little foam basketballs… We had an idea to try and get the robot to automatically detect distance and adjust the speed of the throwing wheels automatically, but we couldn’t get the distance detection to work. We were fine anyway, made it to the semi-finals.

    Oh, and on robots vs androids: Androids are specifically human shaped robots, right? I didn’t realize until recently that ‘droid’ was actually “‘droid” and was short for android in Star Wars, and now it bugs me whenever they call anything that’s not a protocol droid (like C-3PO) or a battle droid a ‘droid’…

    • HiEv says:

      Yup. All androids are robots, but not all robots are androids. Androids are just a specific kind of robot that is basically human shaped.

      Thus Shamus’ “Typical bio-supremacists can’t tell the difference between robots and androids” line bugged my OCD a bit. :-P

      As for the term “droid“, that’s actually a trademarked term by George Lucas. Verizon Wireless actually has to license that from Lucas to use the word “Droid” on their phones.

    • Trix2000 says:

      Was it Aim High, with the poof balls? That was my last year too, and we did pretty well up until we blew a Victor right before the semifinals started. :(

    • swenson says:

      Hey, I was in FIRST too for a year! Pretty neat competition. It’s one of the earlier things that got me into computer science/programming–which is now my life, so I’m not complaining.

  8. Scampi says:

    It’s always a little embarrassing to have to say “I don’t know”. We don’t want to stop and Google it right there (particularly not on the phone) and we usually forget all the questions by the time we get home. Maybe next time we’ll record the questions so we can look them up later.

    Again and again I have thoughts like this, but I never think of taking pen and paper with me, maybe a notebook or something else. The problem with such things is, they have to become regular procedure. That’s why I got myself used to taking my phone or my watch with me by having them in one place with my keys or wallet. If I leave the house I have to take those with me and if I find my watch and my phone with them I don’t have a chance of forgetting them. Maybe you might like to just put a small notebook with a pen close to the place you keep your keys, if you have one (I just have to assume this, since in my family we traditionally have places for our keys, usually close to the front door)?

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      I type notes into my phone all the time.Especially when I hear/see something cool that I want to check out later.Who needs pen and paper when you have a mobile computer in your pocket,that can also double as a phone,and a camera.I could also use it to record my voice instead of typing,but this way is less intrusive to the people around me.

      • I am the only one with the smart phone and I was busy elsewhere at the time. We type questions into google all the time. In fact, that is how the kids learned to use my phone, and spell google.

      • Scampi says:

        As with many things, I never got myself a smartphone or anything even remotely comparable-too expensive, too useless for my taste. I never even used to have a camera in my phones and like to have my machines etc divided one for each task (kind of fits part of this discussion, I guess) so I’m not lost if only one gadget fails me (which contains all functions)
        Of course it comes naturally to most people saying “I use my smartphone”, I guess. Just not to me.
        I like the advantage of having a notebook that nobody else has access to(and that I can have with me at work-phones are forbidden for security reasons).

  9. Didero says:

    Somewhat related, last weekend the Robocup 2013 was held in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. The main event is a football (soccer) championship between completely autonomous robots, but there are also events for the best rescue robot or the robot that’s the best at helping people in a home environment. It sounds pretty interesting (despite the hosting Dutch team not winning the football finals :P), and I kinda wish I had gone there to watch it.
    And the best part is that all participating teams have to make their design documents and software open-source after the Cup is over, so everybody can learn from everybody else, meaning all robots get better every year.

    But yeah, robots can do some cool stuff nowadays, kinda weird to limit an exhibit on them to mannequins and speculation.

  10. X2-Eliah says:

    Wait, why are they not showcasing real-world robots?

    There’s a lot of industrial robotry they could appropriate. Maybe something small-sized and put behind reach on a dumb loop, but still.

    There’s plenty of “toy robots” – the toy dog thingies, all sorts of little cars (even swarm networks) finding paths in rinks, there’s the Lego Mindstorms series of things that can be made into awesome stuff, there’s all kinds of DIY (don’t tell me that carnege melon, of all places, doesn’t have a fair amount of robotics projects made by students).

    There’s a lot of flying robots in the form of quadcopters slaved to a singular overmind. Not that expensive too, esp. as an exhibit piece.

    There’s even the everyday robot things, like the roomba vacuums.

    The point being, it is certainly possible to find interesting, cheap, real-world robotry to display, without turning the whoel zone into “scifi movie robot statues” (which, I bet, themselves cost at least the same as a roomba or a mindstorms kit).

    Heck, also put display pieces and models of the Automated military drones. Those are THE cutting edge of robotic vehicles in use…

  11. Jcarlton says:

    There’s so much going on with robotics these days that something like this is a complete waste.:
    I’m going guess that this is a traveling exhibition set by some liberal arts types who couldn’t take the ten minutes to actually find out what was out there and working. So we are left with the old robots are scary rather than the kid actually learning about the real world they are entering.

  12. Man, I am really getting sick of these social justice bloggers. This is obviously just biophobia dressed up as righteous indignation.

  13. William Curtis says:

    I want Cave Johnson’s Signature….

    And his Portal Gun, and his magic Cancer Causing Goops…

  14. “Most of it is fictional robots and little stations talking about what robots might be able to do someday.”

    That’s sad, because they could totally have visited uses as varied as assembly lines to that one robot that makes pizza to Curiosity and Sojurner and various handicapped assistance devices and military drones . . . there are seriously cool REAL-WORLD robots out there.

    Hell, they could have a cool interactive display just by having a human stand around and ape robotic behavior while kids attempt to instruct him/her how to do basic tasks like “crack an egg” or “throw a ball”. I’ve seen this sort of demonstration before and it’s a great introduction to the “literal-mindedness” and functional limitations of computers/robots.

  15. Hal says:

    Heh. A few weeks ago my wife and I went to the State Museum of Pennsylvania. The place hasn’t really seen any renovation since the late 60s. Wood paneling, chrome letters . . . I really expected to hear Cave Johnson narrating the exhibits.

  16. LunaticFringe says:

    In regards to your older article on robots, ever read With Folded Hands? It’s kind of a hilarious Golden Age of sci-fi twist on the robot invasion story, where robots were programmed to always protect and serve humans (the robots, of course, respond in draconian fashion). Gets a little creepy when one starts talking about how it’s a lot easier to protect humans in a comatose state.

  17. Paul Spooner says:

    One of the biggest challenges in robotics is that we want machines to be like us, but we take our heads and skin for granted. There’s a huge amount of informational input and processing that goes into even the most simple action. Our vision, hearing, touch, and even smell are critical, and yet when we build robots much of the effort goes into the actuator, the “arm” and “muscle” parts. A robot can simply not act reasonably without adequate sensor inputs, but sensors aren’t very spectacular, and tend to get overlooked. Things are getting better, but we’re still a long ways from the sense-itive robots portrayed in fiction. This disappointing fact at least partially accounts for uninspiring robotics exhibit.

    If you’re ever out in the Seattle area (any of you really, not just Shamus) look me up at Electroimpact. Don’t be shy! I’d be glad to give you guys a tour of our facility, where we build big “boring robo-arms” along with other non-arm specialized tooling. They do boring things like drill holes and put together airplanes. Think hundred ton and two story house-sized and you’ll be on track.

  18. Sam says:

    Shamus, how dare you promote Carnegie Science Center so shamelessly…You sellout. :D

    OMSI has actual working robots…HAHAHAHA

  19. Marmakoide says:

    To get an actual view of *modern* robotics, browse around there

    And no,Asimo is not the best bipedal walker

  20. Vect says:

    I’m reminded of how Yes Man in Fallout: New Vegas was specifically programmed to be a subservient sychophant, albiet with passive-aggressive tendencies. So I guess that’s an example of an AI programmed for servitude.

    • LunaticFringe says:

      I do love how the ‘robot rebellion’ trope is so deeply ingrained into the pop culture that a throwaway line from Yes Man about being more assertive turns into ‘that means he clearly becomes an evil robot overlord’.

  21. Lazlo says:

    So I hope that the space exhibit was made even more awesome by your experience with the Kerbal Space Program?

  22. Lanthanide says:

    25 minute video tour of the space station, *very* worth watching if you’ve never seen any videos about it – I never realised it was so large.

    She covers the sleeping areas from 1:02 to 3:02, including probably the best demonstration of weightlessness in the whole video.

  23. Rodyle says:

    Off topic, but Shamus, have you seen the latest on Xcom: The Other One?

    It… it actually looks pretty cool now. You build your partners stats as you like, and they have PERMADEATH. And because the game is largely linear, poor management will leave you with no guys/underleveled guys. You can soft fail this AAA shooter. Also the actual combat looks like the tactical team management Mass Effect 1 only dreamed of.

  24. Mark says:

    Long time reader, very infrequent poster here.

    Just wanted to say thank you for the blog (this and MovieBob’s are pretty much the only two I ever visit), and that your article “What Does a Robot Want?” reminded of a very cool paper available over at the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (formerly the Singularity Institute). It’s called “Creating Friendly AI 1.0,” but it delves into a wide variety of topics with a good balance of accessibility and rigor. Highly recommended to pretty much anybody.

    Thanks again, Shamus!

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