Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 41 / OCTOBER 1983 / PAGE 108

On The Road With Fred D'lgnazio

There's A Robot In My Room

If It's Tuesday, I Must Be In Benton Harbor

Last month I asked you to lace up your racing shoes and sprint with me on my whirlwind tour of computer and robot centers around the United States. I visited the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco, then the Florida Instructional Computing Conference in Tampa. After that I flew up to New York to see a preview of the new educational software being created at the Children's Computer Workshop (CCW). I spent a day in Benton Harbor, Michigan, teaching the HERO 1 robot, and another day in Chicago at ROBOTS VII, the world's largest robotics conference.

This month I'd like you to come with me to England. The trip to England will be like a visit into the future when we will be surrounded by intelligent, friendly machines. We'll see the kind of effect it has on an average person of the present who is still used to dealing mostly with people.

A Scene Out Off Dr. Who

After returning from Chicago, I spent a couple of days at home in Roanoke, Virginia. Then I climbed aboard a TWA jet and flew across the Atlantic to London, England. I went to London to teach a three-week course on "Robotics Literacy" at the Organization Reconstruction Travail (ORT), an international technical-training institute whose world headquarters is in London. I also helped with the course materials by arranging to have a HERO robot flown over from the United States and I carried a Tasman Turtle robot with me on the airplane.

There were 15 students in the Robotics Literacy course. The students came from countries all over the world, including India, France, Israel, the United States, Italy, and the United Kingdom. The students were all adults. They were directors of university engineering schools, vocational schools, and teacher training schools. They had come to London to learn how to set up a robotics course in their own countries. They returned to their countries with a ten-pound notebook full of course materials, another 50 pounds of books, brochures, and manuals, a computer, a robot arm, and lots of "hands-on" experience.

How High The Tech

I anticipated that a course on robotics would be "high tech," but I did not dream how high the tech would be. The classroom was like a scene out of science fiction's Dr. Who program. We had twenty BBC (Model B) computers networked together on the Econet Network. The computers sat on polished mahogany tables lining the walls of the classroom. Next to each computer was a Smart Arm robot. The robots were plugged into the computers and could be programmed using the Arm Controller keypads.

At one point the course manager had all the arms going at the same time. The arms waved, swooped, picked up pencils and half-empty coffee cups.

Also next to the tables was a robotics interface kit. The kit came in a box that looked like a steel briefcase. When you opened the box, you saw an array of wires and metal parts. The kit was developed by the Moshinsky Institute in Israel. It contained sensors and motors that could be connected to the computers and to the Smart Arm robots. It was like a robotic Erector set. With the kit, you could take the Smart Arm, give it eyes and ears, and incorporate it into a miniature factory workstation. Two Smart Arms could work together, sensing each other's movements via infrared, electrical, and optical sensors.

The kit sounds sophisticated, but it was assembled by students at the institute out of spare parts scavenged from the institute's supply room.

At the front of the room was an enormous television set and a BBC computer as the network controller. The teacher could conduct an experiment or give a demonstration simultaneously on the master computer and on the 20 student computers and robots.

Also, whenever a student wanted to ask a question or show off something he was proud of, the instructor could copy the student's computer screen onto any other student's screen or onto the big TV screen at the front of the class.

At the back of the room was a huge multiprojector slide system mounted on a six-foot platform. During the course, we got to see several videotapes and slide shows on different robot applications.

Also at the back was a hulking, hydraulically powered robot arm. The robot was used in major demonstrations and became a star when TV and newspaper reporters arrived.

Running around the floor were lots of little robots, like robot gremlins. A robot "buggy" zipped across the floor, following a twisting, turning piece of white tape with its photoelectric sensor.

The robot turtle was on the floor, talking, beeping, blinking its little LED "eyes," and trying to find its way out of a maze made of cardboard walls.

And HERO was there too, waving his arm, and rolling over the cables and wires that criss­crossed the floor.

An English HERO

When I first arrived in England, I hoped to receive a HERO robot shipped directly from Benton Harbor, the world headquarters of Heath Company, the robot's manufacturer. Unfortunately, Heath was swamped by orders for the HERO and was way behind meeting shipments. A spare robot couldn't be found.

Luckily for me and my students, we found a HERO robot in England. Zenith Data Systems, a Heath-affiliated company located in Gloucester, England, near the west coast, offered to loan us their machine in return for some training on the HERO.

I journeyed to Gloucester by train on my second day in England. I met the English HERO and found that he had been fitted with an English power supply and a deeper voice than the HERO I'd met in Benton Harbor.

I returned to London. Two days later HERO arrived in a box big enough to encase a circus gorilla. His wrist was bent, his head was on crooked, and his photoelectric sensor that monitored the number of times his wheel turned around was disconnected. But these were minor problems. After a little sprucing up, he worked perfectly.

The Master Of Ceremonies

HERO got to be our course's Master of Ceremonies. It was his job to say a few words to inspire the students and get the course started.

The only hitch was that to turn HERO into a congenial Master of Ceremonies, I had to program him. And I had never programmed a HERO before. (The mucking around I did in Benton Harbor was definitely not programming. Take a look at last month's "On the Road" column to see what happened the first time HERO and I were alone together.)

Without proper programming, all HERO was capable of was a few robot calisthenics. Of course, HERO could also say "Ready" (it sounded more like "RED-DY!"). But that meant HERO was ready to be programmed, not ready to do tricks.

I spent the entire weekend before the opening ceremonies programming HERO. I had to enter my entire program as two-digit hexadecimal commands typed into the keyboard on HERO's head. To make HERO's motors move, I had to tell HERO's computer which of six motors to turn on, what motor position to start from, and how far the motor should turn.

In order to get HERO to talk, I had to think up HERO's speech then break it into hundreds of phonemes–the sounds that are the building blocks of spoken words. Then I had to code the phonemes into HERO's "Robot Language" and enter more two-digit codes into HERO's onboard memory

After all the hours of work, I didn't want to lose anything, so I hitched HERO to a tape recorder, and I saved this program on eight tape cassettes.

Then, late Sunday night, I turned HERO's power off. As a result, he forgot everything I had taught him. This was okay, I thought, since I had copies of the program on the eight tapes.

HERO Sat There

On Monday morning, right before HERO made his grand entrance into the classroom, I popped a cassette into the recorder and tried to load the speech program back into his onboard memory.

HERO said "RED-DY!" to signal me that the program was finished loading. I tried to run the program, but HERO just sat there. I looked at the locations in HERO's memory to make sure the program was there.

They weren't there! I was horrified to learn that the front-end of the program had, overnight, turned into computer mush.

I tried a new tape. More mush.

Another tape. And another. And another.

All eight tapes had incomplete copies of my program. I consulted the time on HERO's clock. HERO was to make his grand entrance in just fifteen minutes.

Luckily I had copied down all my commands on a scrap of paper. I found the paper and retyped the missing commands into HERO's head.

"RED-DY!" HERO said. I grinned. This time he was really ready.

I picked HERO up and carried him to the classroom door. I peeked into the room. Everyone was assembled. The director of the course was on the speaker's platform at the front of the room.

The director nodded his head. It was time. I pressed HERO's A button, his DO button, and keyed in the four-digit starting address of the program.

HERO took off. He marched into the classroom, spun around three times, and waved the WELCOME!! sign he held in his gripper "hand."

HERO stopped spinning. "Attention," he said. ("Attention, please" in French.) "Shekket." ("Be quiet" in Hebrew.)

Everyone was amazed that an American robot could talk in French and Hebrew. There were gasps of surprise. The room quickly grew silent.

"Welcome to the ORT Robotics Literacy Course," HERO said. "I am HERO, the robot from America. I hope you have fun. Ha! Ha! Ha! Bye, bye."

HERO spun around once more, waved his sign, then marched toward the door. The audience began clapping.

But HERO was not destined to make a triumphant exit from the classroom. In fact, he never even made it to the door. On his way, he crashed headfirst into a chair.

Poor HERO didn't know he hadn't made it through the door. He thought he was out in the hallway. His "Master of Ceremonies" program finished executing. "REDDY!" he said.

"Listen," said one of the instructors. "The robot knows its master's name. It's saying 'Freddie.'"

Everyone began laughing.

I picked HERO up. I felt like an embarrassed parent. "It wasn't his fault," I stammered. "It was my programming...."

I lurched out of the room with HERO in my arms.

"REDDY!" said HERO.

A Briefcase And A Sewing Machine

I brought two computers from the United States to help me teach the Robotics Literacy course. I had a briefcase-sized Epson HX-20 computer with me to record business expenses and to do course and calendar planning and memos. I brought along a sewing machine-sized Compaq computer to write up my course lectures and to create several graphs, figures, tables, and small data bases from the research material I had gathered for the course.

I used the computers to create lectures on the history of robots, the future of robots, the automated factory, artificial intelligence, the Tasman Turtle, the HERO robot, robots in the home, exotic (outer space, undersea, and legged) robots, CAD/ CAM (Computer-Aided Design/Computer-Aided Manufacturing), industrial robots, robot anatomy, and the impact of robots on jobs, work, and people.

I also brought two robots, as I mentioned–HERO the robot and the Tasman Turtle. The turtle ran on an Apple computer loaned to me by Apple Computer/U.K.

The turtle, HERO, and the Compaq computer had to be converted to British current and voltage (a stepdown from 220 volts to 110, and a change in the current from 60 to 50 Hz). The little Epson computer was okay since it ran on rechargeable batteries. If I'd had to recharge it, I would have had a problem, but during my entire three-week course, the batteries never ran down.

There's A Robot In My Bedroom

I was the only full-time guest instructor for the course so I was always extremely busy. Often I would teach and work 12 hours a day.

I had to work constantly, and I needed my computers and robots near me to do my work. It would have been a great inconvenience to lug them back and forth from ORT to a hotel room every day. But I would need them during the day at ORT and in the evening back at the hotel. I felt almost like a bionic man. I had to have my computers and robots around me, or I couldn't function.

The director of the Robotics Literacy course came up with a solution: I could live and work at ORT in one of the two upstairs suites, down the hall from the course classroom. My office would be my bedroom, and vice versa.

Hey! That's great! I thought. I'm always talking about how people should get intimate with their computers and robots. Now here was the chance for me to see how intimate my machines and I could get.

I was looking forward to this arrangement. I would be all alone at night in the ORT building, but my robots and computers would keep me company. When I went to bed at night, my computers and robots would surround me like tiny sentinels. In the morning I could leap out of bed, turn on the computers and robots, and get to work immediately. I wouldn't have to waste time on nonessentials like getting dressed, brushing my teeth, or taking a shower. (I couldn't take a shower anyway since the ORT shower was broken.)

But I still had one problem: who would wake me up each morning at dawn so I could get right to work? I didn't have a travel clock with me, and I couldn't get a wake-up call from the hotel desk. In fact, I had no phone at all. I was isolated from the world. To make outgoing calls I had to throw on some clothes and run across the street to the Finchley Road tube (subway) station. I made all my business and personal calls at the station in a doorless booth, with dozens of people streaming by and trains rumbling by underneath sounding like earthquakes.

The Robot Alarm Clock

How was I to wake up each morning on time?

Then I remembered that HERO had a built-in realtime clock. I wrote a program using this clock and HERO's light sensor. The light sensor, a photoelectrical cell, can sense up to 256 levels of luminance, or brightness. I made a stab at how bright it would be at 5:30 in the morning, and I created a little wake-up speech for HERO to launch into.

That night I turned HERO on, plugged him into the wall current so his battery would not run down during the night, and started his "wake-up" program running.

I tiptoed toward my bed.

Behind me, HERO came immediately to life and startled the heck out of me.

"Good morning, Fred!" he said cheerfully. "Time to wake up! Get out of bed, you sleepyhead. It's 11 p.m."

I spun around angrily. What was HERO doing delivering his wake-up message at eleven o'clock at night? Was he crazy? Was my program full of bugs?

Then I realized that HERO hadn't malfunctioned and that my program was working correctly. I had erred by starting the program running while the room was still lit. HERO had mistaken my bedside reading light for the early morning sun.

I turned out the bedside lamp. Phooey! I thought. If I want to read in bed, I'll have to do it under the covers with a flashlight.

When the lamp went out, the room became as black as the bottom of a well at midnight. I stumbled my way past two computers and a turtle robot to get to HERO on the far side of the room. I felt the keyboard carefully and pressed the keys to restart HERO's wake-up program. Then I made my way back to bed, trying carefully not to step on any of my mechanical friends in my bare feet. (Both computers were on the floor, along with the turtle. I like programming on the floor where I can spread out my work.)

I hopped into bed and fell immediately to sleep.

"Good morning, Fred!" HERO called. I sat up, shocked. It wasn't morning. The room was still pitch black.

"Time to wake up! Get out of bed, you sleepyhead," HERO continued. "It's 11:45 p.m."

What set him off this time? I wondered. Just then a car went by on the street beneath my window. The car headlights shone into my room. Then I realized what had happened. Headlights from a passing car had triggered HERO's wake-up message. I had to decrease his sensitivity to light.

I was beginning to get slightly paranoid (from lack of sleep). I was worried that HERO would wake me up if a tiny firefly flew into my bedroom. This kind of alarm clock I could do without.

I finished retuning HERO's program, turned out the lights, started the program running, and climbed back into bed. For a while I lay in bed gritting my teeth, just waiting for the starlight or some distant neon sign to set HERO off and give me that infernal, cheerful "Good Morning, Fred." But nothing happened, and I finally fell asleep.

Only A Supernova

The next morning I was awakened by someone hammering on my door. "Fred, are you in there? It's Steve. Are we going to breakfast, or not?"

It was my friend Steve Lubin.

"What time is it?" I asked.

"Eight thirty," Steve replied. "You ought to be up now."

Eight thirty! I had overslept!

I looked over at HERO. He hadn't been stolen. He was still there, looking peaceful, contented, and robotic. His red "power" light was on. I checked his display. The program was still working.

Then why hadn't he awakened me?

As I pulled on my pants, slipped into a shirt, and tied my shoes, it came to me. This time HERO's light sensor was set too low. The morning sun was not enough. HERO probably wouldn't wake me until the sun went supernova.

I finished getting dressed and went out to breakfast with Steve. As I ate a mushy egg on a bagel, I thought about my experiment to turn a robot into an alarm clock.

My experiment hadn't been too successful, but I resolved to keep trying.

The next night, HERO woke me up at 1 a.m. (a truck headlight) and at 4:30 a.m. (dawn came sooner than I realized).

But the next night after that, I finally got all the bugs out. HERO woke me up at 5:19. That was close enough to 5:30. I was satisfied. My robot alarm clock was working.

You Can't Tickle A Robot's Back

My experiment in turning a robot into an alarm clock was ultimately a success. But my experiment in robot and computer intimacy was a dismal failure.

Each night after my human colleagues at ORT abandoned me to return to their homes, I became desperately lonely. I was surrounded by friendly computers and robots, but I was still lonely. I missed my wife and family, and I craved human companionship.

At first I tried to get the robots to simulate human companionship. I programmed the turtle to count to ten and say things like "Stop…Go…Left… Right." And I taught HERO to say things like "That's a cute pair of pajamas you have on, Fred." But this wasn't the same as giving my son a piggyback ride to bed, or tickling my daughter's back, or reading the Sunday comics with my wife. Machines, even intelligent, friendly machines, could supplement human companionship, but they couldn't replace it. At least not in my life.

Pub Crawling, Crystal Balls, And Croissants

The Robotics Literacy course was a wild success. I learned more about robots than I had ever cared to learn. I learned about pneumatics, hydraulics, infrared sensors, flexible manufacturing systems, robot vision systems, stepper motors, servo motors, the whole bit.

And I taught my students all the things I knew. I told them about the giant industrial robots I had seen in Chicago, and the advanced thinking, feeling, sensing robots I had met at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie-Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. On the last day of the course, I gave my final lecture. I gazed into the crystal ball and talked about the future of robot-human relations. I talked about what sort of shape robots might take in the future, and the kind of impact they might have on our lives.

Then my wife came over to England, and I bailed out of the course. I had spent three weeks of almost nonstop work, surrounded by machines, and I'd had enough.

Before my wife arrived, in the evenings as a substitute for human companionship, I used to feast on chocolate eclairs and croissants at local patisseries (bakeries), then do a tour of the London bars and wash away my sorrows with warm, dark English beer. They call this sort of behavior "pub crawling," and it's a very apt phrase. By the end of an evening of videogames, whipped cream, and beer, I would totter back to my bedroom office, crawl into my bed, and dream strange dreams. In one dream, for example, I was pursued by my robots. HERO was chasing me, holding a buttery croissant in his gripper, and the turtle raced after me with a mug of beer sloshing around on his dome.

By the time Janet arrived in London, I'd had enough beer, enough sweets, and enough robots.

Robot In A Garbage Bag

But there was still one remaining chore. I had to return HERO to his home in Gloucester and teach the Zenith people in Gloucester some of the robot's finer points.

To get HERO back to Gloucester, Janet and I rented a little Ford Escort. We slipped a green garbage bag over HERO's head (so nobody would recognize him) and let him ride in the back seat with a seatbelt around his waist.

After only five minutes of practice to get used to driving on the right side of the car and on the left side of the road, we merged into mad, congested London traffic, and we were off.

Driving 60 miles an hour on the left-hand side of the road was scary. The trip to Gloucester left Janet and me shaken. But I didn't get a single complaint from HERO. In fact, he tolerated my driving beautifully. I banged his head against the car roof several times. And I jostled him against the front seat and bounced him off the back seat. He never complained. Instead, all I ever heard (from underneath the garbage bag) was an occasional, muffled "RED-DY."

You can find out more about HERO by writing:

Douglas Bonham
Heath Company
Benton Harbor, Michigan 49022
(Or call: 616/982-3200)

On the road with Fred D'Ignazio and his friends at the ORT Robotics Literacy Course in London, England. HERO the robot came from America. The Tasman Turtle came from Australia.

You can find out more about the Tasman Turtle by writing:

Bill Glass
Tasman Turtle
260 Beacon Street
Somerville, MA 02143
(Or call: 617/492-0660)

You can find out more about the Robotics Literacy Course by writing me:

Fred D'Ignazio
2117 Carter Road, SW
Roanoke, VA 24015

In coming months "on the road," Fred will tell about:

  • An educator who uses computer magic shows to teach children about computers.
  • A London company that makes innovative educational software for children.
  • The British government's effort to put computers and robots in all primary and secondary schools in the United Kingdom.
  • The new British educational robots that will soon be "invading" our country.
  • A look at the way computers, robots, and other high-technology subjects are integrated into the British school curriculum as "disciplines" children can learn to become knowledge workers of the future.