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The robots are here — along with their inventors

The robots aren’t coming. They’re here, and in the headlines, from “Robot Callers Are Denying That They’re Robots” to “Google Paves Way to a Robotic Future” to “The Robots Are Here: Not only are they taking our jobs — they’re harbingers of a new libertarian age,” to this gal, whose existence suggests an entire coming robot race that rivals anything out of science fiction, not to mention this week’s big screen debut of “Her,” about an introverted man who falls in love with an operating system.  

Last week, the robots were at the University of Minnesota, as students in the College of Science and Engineering displayed their final projects in the six-week Introduction to Engineering class. The assignment was to create a robot that “does something interesting” out of a kit of parts, including the computer, and the students gave birth to crude but functional – this is how it starts – card dealers, coin sorters, drink makers, piano players, T-shirt folders, and more. Which spurs the burning questions of the day: 1) Tell us about your robot, and 2) Do you think we’ll see a time in your lifetime when humans and robots share the world in a way science fiction depicts?

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Claire Warren, “The Pi-Note-Key-O.” “I love piano, and I wanted to make a piano-playing robot that plays three notes and ‘Hot Crossed Buns’ and ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ I used 24-volt push-pull type solenoids to play the keys. Essentially, when voltage and current go through, it pushes it down for a certain number of milliseconds and then pushes up. Arduino programming is what runs this robot. That’s the brain of this robot. I think robots will be used to assist humans, but I don’t think robots will ever replace humans. You need a human to operate the robot, and the robot can’t function without a human, and that’s where I see robots’ place in this life.”

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Benjamin Pobiel, “Gus the Light-Seeking Robot.” “It scans a 180 degree arc in front of the robot, and it finds the lightest point and the darkest point and it’ll turn to those. Once it’s found those it’ll display a green LED at the lightest point and a blue LED at the darkest point. I think it’ll take a really long time for robots to catch up with humans, because that will require a lot of technology that doesn’t exist. I think within 50 to 70 years, we’ll have routine interaction with robots in a hospital situation or workplace situation.

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Kenton Smith, “Object-Sensing Robotic Arm.” “The arm is raised and lowered by a gear motor … and it works every time if the batteries are working. If you could program a robot to meet someone’s specific needs and be adaptable over time as the person ages, I can see robots having a big impact on the health-care industry, and robots are fueling that. Our professor right now is working on quantitatively measuring surgeons’ skills with a robot. So you do a simulation of the surgery, and the robot gives you a score based on how effective you are. So it’s already started.”

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Xintian Sun, “Dancing Girl.” “I made her to welcome consumers at front doors of stores. It’s because sometimes when you get into a store there’s no one to help or say ‘Hi,’ so the consumer would be happy if there was a dancing girl at the door and consumers would feel more happy and warm and more satisfied in their shopping experience. It dances a funny dance to music and beats and it [reacts] to a sensor and there are so many people around here that she’s always dancing.”

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Emma Bickerman, “The Card Shuffler and Dealer.” “It’s acting up a little bit, but when it works, it shuffles two decks and deals. I think that the whole robotics side of things are going to explode. I’m really into medical device stuff, and with the da Vinci, a robot you can work from across the room, it just proves that with little things like that progress is being made and we’re getting there. It’s going to become something big. I think I could live to see robotics being part of everyday life, but because everything is moving so fast I don’t really know where it’s going to go.”

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Dan Verbockel, “Two Screwz.” “My robot screws in two screws at the same time. I’m just getting a taste of robotics, but I’m already getting a taste of what’s possible. Now if you get someone who has years and years of experience with robots who can manipulate these different procesesses to such a point where now it’s living, almost … I definitely think that’s possible. The only thing I can base it on is the movie “I, Robot,” where it’ll look something like that.

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Michael Gooder, “Garage Park Automatic 2.0.” “I wanted to make a robot that’s objective is to open the garage by itself and park itself. It uses a distance sensor to detect the garage, open it up for you, and park it for you. I think in the next 50 years we’ll see a big change, because if you look at the last 10 or 20 years we’ve come so far in so many fields, and everything’s improving on a weekly basis, and it seems like every day something new is being invented. Technology is moving fast, and I think [a future with robots] will come sooner than we realize. Humans have an emotional side, and a personal touch, and I don’t think a robot can ever duplicate that, even with artificial intelligence. There’s an emotional intelligence in humans that just can’t be replicated.”

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Mohamed Sereme, “The Slicer.” “I hate to cut onions, so I decided to make a robot who can cut onions, and I ended up finding out that not only can my robot cut onions, it can cut tomatoes and bananas, too. I used a slider crank and slicer to make it work. My professor talked to us about the slider crank, and I thought it was pretty interesting, because most people when they cut onions that go up and down, [it’s] pretty hard. With the slider crank, and a motor with enough torque, it will do all the work.”

 MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

Anirudh Sirvatsa, “The Truck Bed Leveler.” “I was in Guatemala, it was very hilly and I was in the back of a pick-up truck and sometimes I had to hold on for dear life, so I thought I’d make a truck bed leveler. I don’t think we’d be able to get true artificial intelligence exactly like humans, but there will be more robots out there. Just looking at things like Amazon Air, with the drones delivering packages … everything else should be able to happen in the next 30, 40 years. The biggest difference between robots and humans is that with robots you have to be very specific. With humans, you can generalize. And I don’t think that will change all that much, because all computers need that specificity.”

MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh

 John Theisen, “The Shirt Folder.” “I’ve had a little bit of problems with it. I’ve had some problems holding with the connections between the motors and the connections themselves. It’s just kind of been spinning. But I really like the idea of a mechanical shirt folder because then it’s always the same width. Because whenever I fold my T-shirts, they’re all a different width and I like to stack them on top of each other and that’s a problem.”

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