Today, the personal computer is just about as ubiquitous as the venti mocha latte and the flat panel television screen. Just about every home, school and office have (at least) one, and they don’t cost nearly as much as when they first made their big splash on the marketplace. And just like personal computing in the 1970s, robotics today is on that fast track to ubiquity, and few people really know what to expect of it all.

Enter Baxter, an incredibly versatile robot with an 8-foot wingspan; the capability to perform a wide range of manufacturing tasks, working side-by-side with humans; and the perfect specimen to help tell the story of Robot Revolution, the newest exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) this spring.

With support from technology and internet giant Google, Robot Revolution will explore just how these products of human ingenuity will ultimately become our companions and colleagues, changing how we play, live and work together. The exhibit will give guests an opportunity to step into a visionary world where robots are not just a curiosity, but a vital asset, interacting with robots that have rarely been shown to the public before.

In a society drowning in perceptions fueled by sci-fi fantasy and perhaps a little technological apprehension, the exhibition presents a unique opportunity for MSI to demystify our perceptions of robotics and the impact the industry will have on our everyday existence. Says John Beckman, director of exhibit design and development for the museum, “We wanted to create an exhibit that would showcase how and why robots will be an asset to humankind—how they can and will help improve our lives.” Having worked closely for the past several years with leading robotics companies and industry groups to celebrate National Robotics Week each April, the museum has tapped a well honed network to help tell the story of Robot Revolution and the many functions robots will assume in our everyday lives.

Not only an informative platform for an industry moving at the speed of light, Robot Revolution is also part of a growing trend in museum science to motivate future technology professionals. “We believe it is vital to inspire the next generation of engineers and tech entrepreneurs so that we can continue to see technology change the world,” noted Jim Lecinski, head of Google's Chicago office.

Robot Revolution will feature 40 robots on loan from a wide selection of global robotics partners and spread across five distinct interactive sections that map out ways in which the industry will impact each of us.  In paring down the many options to include, the museum consulted with a small panel of robotics experts who helped to cultivate a  collection of robots that represents where the technology currently is and where it is headed in coming years. “We ultimately chose (robots) that would have the ability to interact with guests in a meaningful way or would help further tell the story of robotics in our world.,” said Beckman.

The exhibition stations will include “Cooperation,” a section that will reveal ways in which robots can work to assist and enhance our lives; “Skills,” which will shed light on ways in which robots can mimic and “often surpass” human capabilities; “Locomotion,” which explores the varieties of ways robots can get around and gain humans access to places we ourselves can’t venture; “Build-a-Bot,” which gives museum-goers an opportunity to test out their own ingenuity by assembling the robots and making them perform; and“Smarts,” which shows guests just how these machines are able to sense, plan and then take action, all the while comparing and contrasting how we ourselves learn.

And this is where we find Baxter. Already used in manufacturing circles worldwide, Baxter is a prime example in robotics versatility, having the ability to interpret tasks at hand and then react accordingly—making him the go-to guy for industrial facilities handling low-volume, high-production responsibilities. One of the many interactive subjects of the exhibition, guests will be able to challenge Baxter’s skills in a game of Tic Tac Toe and see just how he learns how to beat us.

Another “Smarts” challenge will examine how a robot is able to solve a Rubik’s Cube, while another robot, ROBOTIS OP, will demonstrate the amazing ability track guest’s faces and even accurately kick a soccer ball.

Medical robots like the ESKO exosekeleton and the Da Vinci surgical system will also be on hand to shed light on how advances in robotics have and will impact the medical care we receive.

With a myriad of applications to our own lives, robotics is certainly a field we should begin to learn more about, and soon. In just a few short years, these technological wonders will be at work in our everyday lives. Robot Revolution offers Chicagoans a unique opportunity to introduce ourselves to what quite possibly could be our next co-worker, companion, dare I say it, friend. (It could happen.)

Robot Revolution opens May 21 at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Meet Baxter, a versatile robot capable of a wide variety of manufacturing tasks and of working alongside humans. Baxter is one of 40 robots that will be unveiled as part of the Museum of Science and Industry's new exhibition this spring, Robot Revolution (photo courtesy of Rethink Robotics, Inc.)


From the Spring 2015 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts

By Martin Henke


Meet Baxter: Quite Possibly Your Next Best Friend

New exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry this spring explores the many ways robots will impact our lives