Life of Pi

28th May 2004 at 01:00

Laser-sharp technology is on show in a robotics exhibition in Falkirk.

Douglas Blane reports

ROBOT

Organised by Heriot Watt University and Falkirk Council.

Mondays to Fridays at Callendar House, Falkirk from May 22 to September 5.

Admission: pound;3 adult, pound;1 child, pound;7 family.

Tel: 01324 503770; education enquiries tel: 01324 503781

www.callendarhouse.org www.hw.ac.uk

Robots present and future jostle with robots past in an interactive exhibition that has opened at Callendar House in Falkirk. ROBOT, A fantastic Journey of Discovery,brings advanced technology out of the lab and into the hands and minds of young people.

Exhibits range from a medieval Jewish Golem made of clay, through mechanical mandolin players and waddling ducks, to the baffling magicians'

automata, and the birth of modern robotics in the fertile imagination of Isaac Asimov - whose entertaining science fiction stories caught the imagination of a generation of 20th-century scientists, engineers and film makers.

A team of engineers and scientists from Heriot-Watt University led by Dr Matt Dunnigan has taken a brave decision in providing working exhibits for ROBOT. There are tiny machines that remove harmful deposits from human arteries, a play area where the latest in robot toys can be tested by young and old and Pi, the stand-up robot.

"How does a robot shave?" the square, friendly, translucent blue head asks.

"With a laser blade," it chuckles. Pi is a prototype designed and built at Heriot-Watt to talk to pupils. "We are trying to engage them with a fun exhibit," says its creator Dr Jim Herd. "But the serious side is that it's all visible. They can see inside Pi and know it's engineering; it's not magic. Schoolchildren are giving up on science and maths. We want to show them there are interesting things to be done. It's not all boring, geeky stuff."

Pi is a product of one of the most challenging areas of robotics, animatronics, which combines computing, engineering and electronics to create the illusion of life. The field offers the prospect one day of machines that can interact with humans in meaningful and even therapeutic ways, and attracts students from around the world to Heriot-Watt's degree course on robotics and cybertronics.

Those who feel Pi's jokes should have been left in the laboratory can have a go at operating the pound;40,000 robot arm. This high-spec machine fromJapan was designed for operation in hostile environments such as the deep ocean.

There is no danger that students attending will break the valuable robot arm, says Dr Dunnigan. "The youngsters can move it around using these computer controls," he says, indicating a large, brightly-coloured screen.

"It'll be new to them and it's quite complicated, so we have slowed down the robot's motion, and made sure it stops before it crashes into the simulated Mars surface."

But then he pauses, a small frown creasing his forehead, the possibility clearing causing some mental anguish. "I guess you can never be quite sure what kids will do though," he adds.

Other attractions include screenings of classic science fiction films, and a series of lunchtime and evening lectures by experts on topics from super-intelligent machines and lifestyle robots to conscious computing, ambient intelligence and cyborgs.

For senior pupils there is a competition in which teams from different schools construct mechanical attachments to wheeled vehicles then use them in a robot football challenge.

"The whole project has been a challenge for us, and very different from our usual research," says Dr Dunnigan. "But it has also been very satisfying."

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