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Carnegie Science Center, CMU add 4 to Robot Hall of Fame

| Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012, 11:59 p.m.
WALL-E
iRobot PackBot
BIG DOG, photo of the last Hall of Fame robot.

Cleveland has rock 'n' roll, Cooperstown has baseball and Canton has football.

In Pittsburgh, robots inhabit a hall of fame.

The Robot Hall of Fame, which Carnegie Mellon University established in 2003 and integrated into the Carnegie Science Center in 2009, added four 'bots to its list of luminaries at a ceremony on Tuesday.

The inductees — elected for the first time by popular vote cast by 17,000 fans around the world — range from Pixar's WALL-E, a fanciful animated film star from 2008, to iRobot's Packbot, a workaday wonder that defused bombs in war zones and explored the Fukushima nuclear power plant following the March 2011 tsunami in Japan.

Professor Robert Thompson, who studies pop culture at Syracuse University, said it's fitting that robots should have a hall of fame, given our long romance with the concept.

“What is it about robots that wouldn't fascinate people? It seems like such an obvious thing: the notion of creating a replica of a functioning human being and to think you're stripping it of all its flaws and emotions,” Thompson said.

Science and science fiction are natural partners at the Robot Hall of Fame, where past honorees range from Star Wars' R2D2 and Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator T-800 to the Mars Pathfinder Sojouner Rover, iRobot's Roomba vacuum cleaner and Unimate, a circa-1961 GM industrial robot.

Tuesday's ceremony highlighted the RoboBusiness Leadership Summit, an international robotics conference that drew several hundred industry leaders for a three-day event that ends Wednesday.

This year's inductees into the Robot Hall of Fame, chosen from 12 nominees, have a common thread, said Shirley Saldamarco, director of the hall and a faculty member at CMU's Entertainment Technology Center.

“More than any previous class of inductees, this group of robots selected by popular vote represents contemporary robotics — robots at the cutting edge of technology — rather than older robots of strictly historical importance,” Saldamarco said.

She noted that two of them, Aldebaran Robotics' NAO and iRobot's Packbot, are commercially available. The final inductee, Big Dog, created by Boston Dynamics in 2005, is the focus of active research sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

NAO, a 22-inch-tall humanoid robot, is used as an educational tool. Big Dog, touted as the most advanced rough-terrain robot on Earth, is a four-legged invention that can walk four miles an hour and carry up to 340 pounds.

New robots take some of the fiction out of science fiction, Thompson said.

“Robots used to be a fun exploration of a possible future but they are becoming more and more relevant as the difference between a functioning brain and artificial intelligence grows narrower,” Thompson said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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