Expert Opinion: Robotics World Champion vs. 'Real Steel'

on October 18, 2011 by Nagy Hakim


We enlisted Robotics World Champion Nagy Hakim to share his take on Disney's robot flick.

People are afraid of robots because we don't know what robots are going to be. We're trying to make them exactly like us and with all the media saying that robots will take over the world, that scares people. But I think that's totally false. That's a misrepresentation of robots. Robots do things we can't do. They they go into space and they go into bodies to see if everything is working right and do things that people don't usually think of them doing. Robots don't want to be humanthey do much more than that. But the humanoid aspect is most emphasized and that's why humans are afraid of them. Remember the movie I, Robot? Totally untrue.

Robots are here to help us. Without robots, we couldn't go into space. Without robots, we wouldn't be able to check the sewer system and make sure everything is functional, or do to surgery that doctors can't do. Medical robotics, that's one of the huge things happening right now, and people need to realize that robotics isn't about building things like us, it's about building things to help us do things that we humans cannot do. In Real Steel, the robots are built to be vaguely human and do human things, but why does it have to be about us at all?

I'm the president of Team 254, the Cheesy Poofs, a robotics team in Bellarmine College Prepatory in San Jose, California, and we participate in a worldwide robotics competition called FIRST Robotics Competition. We were founded in 1999 by the local NASA Ames base in Mountain View and we partner up with them to compete in this competitions to create high quality robots. Every year, the competition releases a new game challenge for the world championship in January and they give each team six weeks to design and build their robot. This replicates the real engineering industry where you have tight deadlines and you have to finish quickly.

This year's game challenge was called Logomotion. Basically, what each team had to do was take different-shaped inner tubes and place them vertically on racks. The higher up on the racks you put the tubes, the more points they are. And the highest rack goes up to 10 feet tall. At the end of the competition, teams can choose to deploy a mini-bot. It's supposed to climb up a 10-foot tower and the first one to climb to the tops gets the most points. Ours was able to get to the top in less than one second.

Every robot we build, we name it after a Decepticon. This year's robot is called Slipstream. We have another robot called Shockwave, which is our awesome t-shirt cannon, and we have another robot called Devastator, too.

Our robot Slipsteam was on a 22x64 inch surface. It had six wheels, all-wheel drive. It can go 18 feet per second on high gear and 10 feet per second on low gear. That's because we wanted to be able to traverse the field as quickly as possible, but we also wanted to have as much torque as possible to be able to push around the other machines. The lower gear goes slower, but it's stronger. We have two-stage elevator which raises up to about 11 feet tall, and on this elevator, we have a carriage system with an arm, and this carriage system has a double roller system that allows it to suck in the tubes, and with the double rollers, you can rotate the tube in whatever orientation you would like.

What's really special about the FIRST Robotics competition is that their mission is to get high school students inspired and energized about building robots. When you go to these competitions, you can really see how that affects the students. [Editor's note: the one time I went to a high school robotics competition, it was a packed colosseum of kids in costumes. There was loud music, cheering, and people dancing the Macarena in their seats.] We have about 4,000 teams in the competition right now and people get really excited. If you build your robot every day for three or four hours, that becomes your social life. It's what you enjoy; it's what other people enjoy. There's a kind of bonding that happens around other people who enjoy the same thing you do. We're at the lab late, we listen to music, we're sleep-deprived.

Every team has their own theme. Ours is the Decepticons and we have a very definite identity. Identity is one of our important things. We have t-shirts with our logo and every robot that we build is a particular shade of blue. Our color represents our team. We don't have to have an identity, but it's encouraged. It's like the matches in Real Steelthe fighters have their own personality and that's what people are there to see.

Our current society, I don't think it appreciates technology as much as it should. I think we look at a MacBook Pro and say, "Oh, it's a laptop." But we don't realize that it took hours and hours of development and perfection and iteration to get it the way it is. When Real Steel had his son come around and show his appreciation for technology, it inspired Hugh Jackman, his father, to understand that it's not just a piece of junk that moves around-it's actually a design that someone thought of and was inspired to do.

We're really trying to get students interested in STEMthat stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. And I think Real Steel was trying to do the same thing with their robotics competition, trying to inspire kids and show them that no matter how old you are, or from what background, you can always build robots and you can always get involved in the technological field. Another thing is that it really showed what hard work can do. These students in these robotics competitions, they put days and days and days of work, endless hours, on these robots trying to make them work and then trying to perfect them. Real Steel shows that dedication can really pay off. No robot is ever perfect, and the only way that you can get it as good as possible is if you work until you run out of time. We're always iterating our robots to make them better.

When we won, it was pretty amazing. All this hard work finally paid off. It was an exhilarating experience. "Oh my god! We won! We won!" It was unreal. It was pretty good. We had a couple parties. The tournament was in St. Louis, so the team got together and went to a restaurant and said thank you to all the mentors. But even though we won, it's not our end as a team. We have to keep going and come back harder and stronger, and we have to make a bigger impression than we already did.

Unlike Hugh Jackman, we're extremely protective of our robots to make sure they're safe and functional. After every match, we always maintain our robots to make sure they're in perfect working condition. And we design our robots for robustness to make sure they last. That's one of the most important engineering aspects.

If a guy like Hugh Jackman joined our team, it would be a little difficult, but eventually we'd get along. We all start off thinking, "Oh, it's just a robot," but as you become more familiar with them, as you start building them, you become able to understand all of these aspects of the robot that you wouldn't understand if you weren't working with it. If someone wasn't appreciating the technology of the robot, it would be hard for them to get along. Eventually, he'd come around. When I was in freshman year and I first joined the team, I was like that. I didn't know how fun, how entertaining, how magical robots can be until I started working with them. And once I did, I started looking at everything in a different way. Cellphones, computers, cars-everything just became different and now I have an appreciation for it.

I joined the robotics team people when people said, "We build robots," I said, "Cool! I want to learn how to do that." It turned out to be much more than just building robots. You not only build robots, but you build relationships with other people. Being on this team taught me leadership skills, it taught me how to work in a team and interact with different kinds of people. For example, we work with professional engineers as mentors and it opened me to this whole new world. We build a robot, but we also learn about each other at the same time.

We have 140 students on the team this year, and being president means that you have a lot of people looking up to you. It's a whole different vibe. I'm not the only leader of the team. We're conducted like a company. We have about 10 student team leaders who each control one aspect, and then we have project leaders underneath them who control each project. And these project leaders aren't just about building robots: there's marketing, there's sponsors, there's archiving, there's graphic design. We have a media team who film and take pictures of our robots. My job as president is just to keep the team well unified and well communicated just to make sure that everything runs smoothly. It takes a lot of human skills, and those are something that I learned along the way. I'm just a junior this year and this is my third year on the team.

If I saw Real Steel as a 10-year-old kid, I'd probably react the same way that I did: "Whoa! That's so cool!" I'm only 16, and the difference between 10 and 16 towards an awesome movie isn't that much. The movie really touched me in that way that no matter how old you are, you can always find an appreciation in the small things.

I thought the robots in Real Steel were really cool. What I liked about the movie is that they emphasized all the upcoming aspects of robotics. For example, to be able to do what humans do and react the way that humans do, that's one of the aspects that robotics is trying to emphasize right now. But the movie also emphasized that humans will always be better and smarter. No matter how good the robot will be, a human will always overpower it. Autonomous is always good, but it will never replace us.

Robots like Atom exist today. We call these humanoid robots and they start mimicking human beings. There is a Japanese researcher who built a robot named Geminoid who looks exactly like him. He built it to look exactly like him and to do what he does, so if he looks left, the robot looks left. It has the same skin properties as a human does and it moves its eyebrows, its nose, its mouth the same way that we do. It's really creepy when you see it because the robot is exactly like us, but it's not alive. There's this thing called the "uncanny valley" that shows our relationship to robots and this humanoid robot is at the bottom of the valley where you start getting freaked out because it looks so much like us. The more it looks like us, the more we're aware of the differences. But we can also emulate the rest of nature, like the way that a bird flies, and learn so much from it. That's the point of robots: to do what humans cannot do.

I liked that they included the use of autonomy and remote control. Zeus was fully autonomous and then there's Atom who's fully controlled by the human beings. Our robotics program emphasizes both equally as much. We have an autonomous period as well as a control period, and that's important because remote control uses human input, but adding autonomous means the robot has to perceive its environment, it has to take in sensory input and recognize what could be next. Autonomous means that not only do the robots learn from humans, they learn from their past actions. Let's say that a robot tries to kick another robot and it misses. It's going to learn from that mistake and build upon it so that it won't miss the second time. Having the robots adapt themselves is what's going to lead us to the the next era of robotics. The movie got that right.

Another thing that was cool about Zeus is he was able to predict what was coming next. He could adapt to his environment and see what was coming up. I thought that was really cool where they showed his artificial intelligence, like the robot expects what's coming. That's already been manifested in current technology today and it's what the robot of the future is going to be like.

It was interesting that they showed that the old technology, even though it may be old, isn't always necessarily worse. The new technology may be amazing, but old technology can't be disregarded. But Zeus was still my favorite for a couple reasons. Engineering is about making a functional product, and that's exactly what they got in Zeus. Not only is he a good-looking robot-polished, refined, iterated and professionalhe also showed the upcoming autonomy. The fact that his team refined their product, that's what I liked about him the most. But how they portrayed thatthat Zeus is terrible because he's overpoweringthat's what I didn't like. He's a good robot and he shows the future of robotics. Why should he be a villain?

In a way, since we are the reigning world champions, we're treated in the same way as Zeus. People look at us and say, "Oh, this team doesn't help anyone, they have so much funding, they're cocky." But in fact, that's not true. We do endless hours of outreach to help found other new and upcoming teams, to help their communities be aware of robotics. We have 140 students who each contribute about 20 hours a semester, or 40 hours a year, to mentoring other students. And I attribute our team's success to hard work. That's the only thing that got us anywhere: endless hours of practice and being at the lab working and developing. And also being able to work with our awesome mentors. Our mentors put in so many hours and they're not required to do itthey're volunteers.

And I liked that the movie emphasizes the integration between hardware and software. People usually look as robots as only hardware, but they're actually equally as much software as they are hardware. A robot will never be functional if it doesn't have the software to go along with it. You can build a robot, but what is it going to do if you don't program it? And if you have the program, what can that do if you don't have the robot? By emphasizing both of those, the movie also got that right.

Also, the product placement was really interesting. There was a lot of Dr. Pepper in Real Steel. But there's a lot of sponsorship in robotics. We partner up with different companies to work on the robots, so what companies like Google and Intel do is they fund these teams and also provide a lot of scholarship money to students who are interested int his program. One of the main components of the FIRST Robotics Competition is to partner students up with these companies so they can get a real taste of what the industry is like. For example, our team is a NASA house team, and what that means is the NASA base here in Northern California provides us with a building on base where we can work on our robot. What NASA hopes in sponsoring 140 students is that one day these students will come back to NASA and work for them. I would love to work at NASA-that's been my dream for years.

What I didn't like about Real Steel was that they showed technology destroying other technology. I hated that. They showed awesome engineering and then it was destroyed. They had robots killing themselves and each other. Technology should be built to help people, to help society and to help the world. And technology should help other technology. It shouldn't be destroying itself. And destroyed for what? For the heck of it?

I don't think there's any limit to where robots can go. Only time will tell. I think that's one of the cool things about robotics: anything's possible



Tags: Real Steel, Expert Opinion

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