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Garage-based engineers unveil their wares at the Robot Games 2000
(IDG) -- "Do you like my dog?" David Calkins asked innocently. "I hacked his brain."
The dog in question -- a frisky Sony AIBO -- sniffed around the "pit" at Robot Games 2000, held Sunday at San Francisco's Exploratorium. The games are a sort of robotic Olympiad, complete with an obstacle course, a maze, Sumo wrestling (where two autonomous robots try to push each other out of a circle) and a "talent show" (featuring Win Williams' five-robot dancing troupe, the Pleasurebots).
During the past 15 years, the games have become a ruff-tech haven where garage-based engineers, techno-dreamers and scientifically minded artists test the physical side of technology outside of the increasingly slick world of dot-coms and corporate labs.
Calkins, president-elect of the Robotics Society of America and one of the organizers of the Robot Games, said, "This event is the opposite of the dot-com world. These are average people with average incomes making robots very much by themselves in the garage or living room. Although many of us work in the computer industry, we're more interested in doing cool things than vesting stocks."
John Zeissig, an artist whose six-legged robot, Fuzzknuckes (named after his cat), was competing in the obstacle course, agreed. "These robots are all home-brewed. I think it's better to build things yourself, because corporations like Sony just want to sell stuff. I'm more serious about it. I want to show that all mental events can be mimicked by certain kinds of circuitry." He paused, chuckling, then added grandly, "I want to drive a stake through the heart of spiritualism."
Despite this hyper-logical swagger, many attendees radiated a kind of science-fiction humanism. Many of the contestants and spectators treated their robots like living creatures.
"He seems to be seeing things that aren't there," mused Zeissig about Fuzzknuckes, who kept walking backward for unknown reasons. Carlo Bertocchini, whose robot Beast has been competing in the Sumo contest since 1994, patted his small, four-wheeled black box with pride. "He's a crowd-pleaser," he said, smiling.
But 14-year-old Jade Kraus, one of dozens of young contestants at the games, made the most casual techno-liberatory comment of the day. Gesturing at her chip-packed Sumo bot, she noted, "I always let him roam free in my room." Only at the Robot Games do bots and AIBOs roam free, while the humans have to obey rules.
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