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It began with the predictable reinforcing of old, outdated stereotypes: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