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Lynn Hummel: Shake hands with a robot

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This article is being written during National Robotics Week and would be much better if a robot were writing it.

We are all in an age where robots are assembling cars and are almost ready to drive and parallel park them. Robots are also patrolling our skies, cleaning our floors and doing heart surgery — and we are just in the infancy of the age of robotics.

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Where do the geniuses who create the robots come from? You might be interested to know that high schools have robotics competition — in the U.S. and around the world. Robotics are a test of science, math and creativity and in America we should encourage this competition because we rank 47th out of 144 countries in science and math achievement.

They are just finishing a regional robotics competition in Washington, D.C., to see who will qualify for the world competition coming soon. The challenges are amazing. The robotics team have just six weeks to design, program and build their robot. One competition will determine which team can design the best and most accurate robot that throws the most Frisbees into a basket in two minutes. Another contest is to see which team can design a robot that can climb a nine foot tall jungle gym pyramid in the least time. There is also a robotic auto bumping competition. The Washington, D.C., regional will send five teams to the world competition: The Brazil Machine, Team Crunch from Florida, the RoboCats from Ohio, the Israel Thunderbolts and the Washington, D.C. Tiger Pride.

Over 50,000 kids participate in this competition worldwide. They are coached by teachers, engineers and other technical professionals. One coach said, “Everybody thinks we build robots here. As a matter of fact we build people here. The students need to decide what to do and what to give up. This is a learning experience for the kids.” One kid said, “Before this I barely knew what a screw was, didn’t even know what a nut or bolt was.” Now he’s a student robot designer. Girls are part of the team. Student Larissa Simon said “It’s important that girls get involved in engineering.”

I have nothing but respect, appreciation, applause and encouragement for these young scientists. They are our future. We have to be optimistic when we see what they can do.

But I have a suggestion for the theme of some future competition. The theme would be SIMPLICITY. Let me illustrate what I’m talking about.

We got a nice new TV about two years ago. State-of-the-art. The package consisted of two little black boxes for playing DVD movies and two remote clickers. There is a third remote that may or may not have been included. The two main remotes have 75 buttons between them, plus numbers 1 through 0 on each for another 20 buttons. The third remote has 29 buttons plus numbers 1 through 0. The buttons have labels like input, swap, fav, aspect and move. To turn on the set properly, I have to punch three or four buttons in the right sequence to get a picture with sound. Sometimes I have to do the same thing to turn it off. That’s right, turning the set off is not simple. And we have yet been able to push all the right buttons in the correct sequence to play a movie. Of course there are instruction booklets (more than one) with instructions in two languages: Spanish and advanced physics.

TV remotes could be considered to be a form of robotic device. I would award a Nobel Prize to the first high school robotics team (or anybody else for that matter) who could devise a remote instrument with four buttons: on/off, channel, volume and play movie. Of course, the remote would have numbers 1 through 0, but any student of calculus could have told me that.

We don’t have any kids 9 through 17 in our home anymore so these things are puzzling to us. I have great appreciation for the geniuses who make our lives better by inventing increasingly complicated electronic devices. But it takes a higher level of genius (and a rare genius indeed) who can take something very complicated and simplify it. Let science, math and creativity take a shot at that goal.

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