Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 40 / SEPTEMBER 1983 / PAGE 106

On The Road With Fred D'Ignazio

    Do you have your track shoes on?
    Do you have a pocketful of plane reservations?
    Do you have your passport? And your international driver's license?
    Are you in fantastic shape? Can you withstand a nonstop barrage of greasy airport Reubens, buttery croissants, chocolate eclairs, and warm ale? Can you keep your feet from going flat after walking through miles of computer and robot exhibits? Can you remain steady after transcontinental and transoceanic jet flights, cross-country train rides, car trips, and frantic wandering through the London subway?
    You can? Good! Then you're ready to accompany me on a whirlwind replay of my spring "on the road."

Big Bird, Blue Jeans, And Blackboards
On March 17th, I joined the COMPUTE! staff and jetted out to San Francisco for the 1983 West Coast Computer Faire. On March 28th, I still hadn't recovered from the crowd, tumult, and heady new products introduced at the Faire. But I packed my bags and flew down to Tampa, Florida, to make a speech at the Florida Instructional Computing Conference. I remember asking the passenger sitting next to me, "Is Tampa on the east coast of Florida or the west coast?"
    The week after I returned from Tampa, I hopped aboard another plane and flew up to New York to visit the people at the Children's Television Workshop and the Children's Computer Workshop. CCW and CTW were a treat. It was good to meet relaxed, smiling people dressed in blue jeans and T-shirts. And big fuzzy Cookie Monster, Kermit, and Big Bird dolls were perched on file cabinets and smiled down from colorful posters on the walls.
    (You can read about what I learned on these trips in my July 1983 "On the Road" and "World Inside the Computer" columns in COMPUTE!, and in my August "Computing for Grown-Ups" column in COMPUTE!'s Gazette.)
    During this phase of my travels I got to see a lot of educational software. My chief impressions were that the software is quickly improving and that its creators are beginning to deal with learning in a totally new manner.
    Only a year ago, educational software on personal computers consisted almost entirely of old-fashioned "electronic textbook" programs and drill and practice programs.
    Six months later we were besieged by educational game software, really disguised drill and practice.
    Now we are beginning to see something new. We are seeing the first real microcomputer simulations, where the kid's computer "pretends" it is a world or environment and challenges the child to playact and build a face, conduct a chemistry experiment, pilot a starship, run a nuclear reactor, solve a crime, or map out a new world. Some of the forerunners in such simulation games include the Learning Company's Gertrude's Puzzles; Spinnaker's Facemaker, Snooper Troops, and In Search of the Most Amazing Thing; and Children's Computer Workshop's Electronic Blackboard game.
    Electronic Blackboard suggests an even newer type of educational software for children: kids' workstations - where the computer becomes a general-purpose tool to enable children to use the computer to do whatever they want (just like adults!).
    Electronic Blackboard creates an electronic "mailbox" for kids. Several blackboards are pictured on the computer's display screen. At first they are empty. Kids get to "borrow" a blackboard, associate their name with it (as a mail address), and use electronic chalk to write messages on the board for other kids to see.
    If a message isn't private; you get to see it just by calling up a particular blackboard. If, however, it is private, the child can hide it. You can access private messages "for your eyes only" by typing your name. It's not a foolproof security system, but it makes a great educational activity. Kids get to practice their reading and writing skills. And they are learning how to do word processing and send electronic mail.

All Alone With HERO
Not long after I visited CCW, I flew to Benton Harbor, Michigan, for a first encounter with HERO the robot, made by Heath. After Star Wars' C3PO and R2-D2, HERO is probably the third most famous robot in America.
    And he is for real.
    I noticed this immediately the first time I met him. Doug Bonham of Heath gave me some quick pointers about operating HERO, then he left the two of us alone.
    There we were, in a tiny office deep inside Heath's giant manufacturing plant on the outskirts of Benton Harbor. HERO was on a worktable in the rear of the office, propped up at an angle so his drive wheel was slightly off the table (in case I told him to do something foolish).
    And I was staring at HERO.
    What do I do first? I am itching to get to know HERO - make him walk and talk and do other great things. But I am scared to death that I might get things mixed up and somehow hurt him.
    I realize now that I was reliving those first anxious moments experienced by the first-time owner of a personal computer. You desperately want to touch the machine, play with it, make it perform. It doesn't even have to turn cartwheels or play Beethoven's Fifth. You would be thrilled if you could make the computer do anything.
    Yet you are almost frozen by fear. What if you push the wrong button? What if you wipe out a program? What if you damage the machine? What if you do something foolish and silly?
    I stood in the little room staring at the buttons on top of HERO's head and glancing at the "teaching pendant" (control box) sitting next to HERO on the table. What should I try first?
    I decided that I'd try the safest thing first, something that was guaranteed not to get me into trouble. I would press the "3" button and the "1" button on HERO's keyboard. When HERO received a "31" command, he was supposed to move all his motorized limbs back to their "home" position. Surely this was a trivial and harmless thing to try first.
    I pressed "31" and was startled when HERO came to life. His motors started buzzing, his arm rotated, his gripper hand pivoted, his wheels turned, and his head swung from side to side.
    Then it happened.
    I was just starting to breathe easier when HERO's wheels swiveled around and began banging into a metal plate. Bang! Bang! Bang! went the wheels. HERO's whole body began to rock.
    I backed off in total dismay. I glanced fearfully at the door behind me. I was sure that Doug and his staff at Heath heard the racket and were about to rush in and accuse me of breaking their robot.
    HERO's wheels kept banging. I leaned over and held onto HERO's shoulders, afraid that he would rock himself off the worktable.
    Then he stopped.
    "Ready," he said sweetly.
    "Ready?" I thought. Then, with a flood of relief, I realized that HERO was okay. All that banging was okay. He was just returning his wheels to their "home" position. I hadn't broken anything. No one came into the room. They were used to HERO making noises like that.
    My confidence quickly returned. I spent the next two hours joyfully punching buttons on Hero's head and flipping switches and turning the dial on HERO's teaching pendant. I taught him how to say "Hello, Fred," how to wave, and how to crash into the wall.
    That last trick was not what I intended. I had hoped that my program would activate HERO's wheels and navigate him across the floor and out the door. I had planned for him to make a little trip down the hall to say hello to Doug's people.
    But, somehow, the door was narrower than I figured. Or else HERO's front drive wheel was a little crooked. In any case, when I pressed the "A" and the "DO" buttons and gave the memory address of my little program, HERO said "Here I go," then marched right into the wall.

The Hall Of The Dinosaurs
The day after my first encounter with HERO, I rode with Doug Bonham in his car along the shoreline of Lake Michigan to Chicago. Doug was going to check up on Heath's exhibit at the ROBOTS VII conference in giant McCormick Place on the edge of the lake.
    After spending several hours with HERO the day before, I thought he was the greatest. With his computer brain and his arm and wheels and motors and sensors, he was a complete, real robot. I expected him to hold his own with all the other robots in McCormick Place, since most of the robots there were not nearly as versatile or advanced. HERO could speak, move, and had an array of "senses," including the ability to detect motion, light, and sound. Most of the other robots were sightless, "dumb" industrial robots, anchored by lugs and rivets to the floor of the factory. How could they compare with a cute, walking, talking robot like HERO?
    What a surprise!
    When I walked into the mammoth exhibit hall at McCormick Place, I was stunned. I felt like I was in a giant, dreamlike Museum of Natural History, surrounded by prehistoric dinosaurs. Only the dinosaurs were not dead, old bones. Instead they were alive and they moved. And their skin wasn't a cement gray, but red, orange, black, and brilliant yellow - all the colors of the rainbow.
    This all sounds melodramatic, but it's true. The robots in McCormick Place were huge. Their robotic arms were as long as the neck of a giraffe, or of a brontosaurus. They appeared even taller because they rested on top of six-foot-high metal pedestals.
    And they didn't just sit there. They moved with frightening, snakelike swiftness and grace. Their movements made them seem alive, conscious, even intelligent. They twisted, gyrated, and whirled in a strange, mechanical dance.
    As they moved they made soft noises. Some swished, others whooshed. Some buzzed, others wheezed. Many robots made no sound at all. They moved their enormous arms in great, sweeping arcs. They rotated, opened, and closed their leviathan grippers. Their arms telescoped abruptly to twice their size, or dived to the floor to pick up a cinder block or a paintbrush.
    And they made no sound at all.
    In the midst of all these dinosaurs sat HERO - two HEROs, actually. He was the same robot as yesterday, but somehow, among all these hulking machines he seemed very different. He was obviously still "all robot," but now he also seemed sensitive, delicate, and fragile.
    Whatever, HERO was a tremendous hit. I came back to the Heath booth several times during the day and always found huge crowds of people standing around the two HEROs, watching them perform, and listening to them tell jokes.
    I left the ROBOTS VII conference late that afternoon and flew back to Roanoke. I carried with me one chief impression. Before the conference I had thought of robots as all belonging to the same tribe. Now I saw two tribes: the little guys, like HERO; and the big, hulking monster robots that are taking over our factories.
    Eventually we'll have robots of all shapes and sizes in our society - not just big robots and little robots. But I think there will still be two different tribes. Then the programming will make the difference. Robots in the home will be programmed to be friendly, playful, helpful, and easygoing. Robots in the workplace will be cold, purposeful, and narrow-minded. They won't be programmed to carry on a chat with their human counterparts. Their only mission will be to get the job done. Both types of machines (home and work) will be robots. But they will be two different sorts of creatures entirely.

Next month Fred and HERO go to London, England, to teach a course on robotics literacy, and they visit a children's educational software company. Fred also meets a computer magician - a British teacher who creates kids' magic shows using computers.