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October 25, 2007


Peacebots Picket Robotic Violence

Peace Robot

What do robots do in the real world? They vacuum floors, work on assembly lines, assist with laparoscopic surgery and, as of last Saturday, march for peace.

The peacebots that demonstrated at the Franklin Institute on Oct. 20 were programmed by four students from Associate Professor of Computer Science Doug Blank's introductory course in computer science, which uses robotics to introduce the basic principles of the discipline. Calling themselves People for the Ethical Treatment of Robots, they were a comical counterbalance to an event titled "Robot Conflict," in which pairs of robots faced off against each other in a glass-walled arena to "smash, toss or cut their opponents to bits," as the Institute's Web site said.

Robot Conflict, organized by the Northeast Robotics Club (NERC), was part of Robot Day, an exhibition designed to foster local kids' interest in robotics technology. Robot Day was hosted by the Institute's Partnerships for Achieving Careers in Technology and Science (PACTS) program, which works with local middle- and high-school students.

Blank and his students organized the robotic picket line, which carried signs bearing mottos like "Make code not war," "Thou shalt not press others' kill switch," and "Extendable arms are for hugging," partly to give those attending the event a chuckle. But their tongue-in-cheek protest was also designed to call attention to some serious issues.

Peace Programmers with Robots

As a computer scientist at Bryn Mawr and the director of the Institute for Personal Robotics in Education, Blank is deeply committed to making the academic culture of computer science more welcoming to women and other groups who are underrepresented in the field. He questions the ability of a combat model to do that.

It's telling, Blank said, that of more than a hundred participants in the combat event, only one was female. Although the students in the PACT program are quite diverse, he said, the NERC members who entered the contest were overwhelmingly white and male.

"This kind of event appeals to a specific demographic," Blank says. "I think that using this as a community-outreach activity just tends to perpetuate the current situation in science and technology fields. Kids watching the battle bots see a lot of guys operating them, and little boys get the implicit message that they could grow up to do something like this, but little girls get a different message."

Elena Stock and Rebecca Rebhuhn-Glanz, both first-year students who participated in the protest, acknowledge that the robot combat was fun to watch.

Peace Programmers with Robots

"But," Rebhuhn-Glanz says, "If I were designing a robot, that's not what it would be doing. I'm not sure it broadens the appeal of robotics. We had one of our robots drawing, and I think we reached more of the little kids with that. There was also a dancing robot, and the kids loved that, too."

Blank isn't entirely comfortable with using violence as a pedagogical tool, either. "Even though it's robots that are fighting and people aren't hurt, the violence is real in a way that a video game, for instance, is not. A lot of real damage is done to the robots."

"Robot parts were flying," says Stock. "The floor got all ripped up, and they had to keep sweeping it up because there were little bot bits all over the place."

"We weren't really protesting robot violence," Blank says. "People have a lot of fun doing this, and that's great. I don't have any objection to that, but if people are going to use it for education, they ought to think twice. I think there are better ways to get kids involved in engineering, and to get more kids involved in technology."

Stock says that she feels relatively unaffected by gender stereotypes and found the battle bots very appealing, but she and Rebhuhn-Glanz agreed that the macho culture of science can be unwelcoming to women. Both have friends who attend a technological institute with a high ratio of men to women.

"You have to be really competitive to survive in a situation like that," Rebhuhn-Glanz says.

As for Stock, she thinks Blank is onto something with his use of robotics to make computer science more appealing to students.

"Coming from a background of absolutely no computer science, I was pleasantly surprised to find out that we would be working with something that applies it. A robot does take what you're doing that's very abstract and translates it into a physical reality, which is really satisfying. It's really diminished my mathphobia and my computerphobia. I came in with the intention of majoring in either psychology or international relations, and now I'm considering a major in computer science."


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