R2-D2, NASA Rover, Others Enter Robot Hall of Fame

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
November 11, 2003
Last night, an elite crowd gathered at a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, awards ceremony where the acceptable dress code ranged from black tie to anodized aluminum.

The event was the inaugural Robot Hall of Fame induction ceremony held at the Carnegie Science Center at Carnegie Mellon University.

Four robots were judged to have the "right stuff" this year: The Unimate robot arm and the Mars Pathfinder "Sojourner" rover were inducted in the real science category, while R2-D2 and HAL9000 of Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey fame were honored in the science fiction category.

"We favored robots that had achieved 'firsts' or had affected our thinking deeply," said James H. Morris, dean of the school of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University and a key organizer of the hall of fame.

The honor was established earlier this year to recognize great robots from both science and science fiction. The institution celebrates visionary ideas and the benefits that the machines and their creators offer modern society.

"Along with their more exotic endeavors, the robotics community is working on the real problem of digitizing our world for the betterment of us all," said Morris. "They and their creations deserve recognition."

Celebrating Robotic Pioneers

Joseph F. Engelberger, the so-called "father of robotics," accepted Hall of Fame honors for his creation, Unimate—the first industrial robot.

Drawing on postwar technology, the robotic arm was deployed on a General Motors assembly line in 1961. Unimate worked with heated die casting machines and performed other hot, dangerous, or distasteful jobs. It spawned the development of modern industrial robots and revolutionized how cars are manufactured today.

"The Unimate robot arm was one of the first programmable devices that worked in factories in a cost-effective way," Morris said.

"It's kind of nice to see that the beginning is going to be recognized," Engelberger said. "I happen to be much more interested in the future, but referring back to the early days is pleasant."

The most avant-garde robot honored last night was the Mars Pathfinder Microrover Flight Experiment (MFEX), better known as "Sojourner." (Since the original remains on the Red Planet, a replica will be installed in the Hall of Fame.) The pioneering Mars explorer was the first device to perform autonomously on another planet.

Accepting on its behalf was Jake Matijevic, team chief for flight operations of the Mars Exploration Rover (MER) with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Matijevic managed the Mars Pathfinder Microrover Flight Experiment, and was responsible for the implementation, integration, delivery, and eventual operation of Sojourner on Mars in 1997.

"It's something to look at with respect because finally an experiment was done within an economic constraint that made sense," Engelberger noted. "I've argued for years to send robots rather than humans to space. It's a bad environment for humans and an ideal environment for robots. That was a great start."

Meanwhile, R2-D2 was one of two robots to receive the nod this year in the science fiction category. Said Morris: "R2-D2 represents the paragon of a helpful, accomplished robot."

Kathleen Holliday, director of special programs at LucasFilms in San Rafael, California, accepted the award on behalf of R2-D2 and Star Wars creator George Lucas. Kenny Baker, the actor who starred inside the original robot, also attended.

The fourth inductee is perhaps best known to both film buffs and science fiction readers as a voice of a space station computer, HAL9000. The 1968 movie was based on a short story and subsequent novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, by English science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke.

"HAL9000 raised important questions about conflict between humans and robots," Morris said.

Clarke, who lives in Sri Lanka, was unable to attend last night's award ceremony for HAL9000. But in the spirit of last night's ceremony, he prepared a virtual acceptance speech from "HAL."

Hall of Fame organizers said they felt it was important to include fictional robots alongside real world machines that have made more tangible impacts on humans.

"Science fiction often leads science," Morris explained. "Jules Verne took us to the Moon long before NASA. The inventors of Unimate were avid science fiction readers. Arthur Clarke suggested the geo-synchronous satellite along with his fictional ideas. Some writers of science fiction are writing the first draft of a real design that may take hundreds of years to realize."

Ideas that were fiction only a few decades ago are now reality thanks to the work of some of the guests at last night's awards ceremony.

But Engelberger said that while he believes even more fantastic robots will be developed in the future, he can be frustrated by the pace of progress in robotics today.

"The technology has grown…. What disturbs me is that with all these tools, we are not making the most of them," he said. "The public is still thinking of R2-D2 and C-3PO and saying, where are they?"

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