We all probably know, on some level, that robots may eventually be a much bigger part of our lives than they are now. Many of us have Roombas, we’ve seen factory robots at work, and we know that companies and governments are using drones for a variety of purposes. But most of the time, speculation about how robots will make our lives easier and more convenient is in the abstract future. We can’t wait for self-driving cars and personal robotic servants.

The current exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry, “Robot Revolution,” is designed to give us a look at what’s happening now in the industry. It’s a little bit different from the run-of-the-mill museum exhibition in that, because it hopes to keep up-to-date with technology, its creators have formed partnerships with organizations and plan to update it regularly over its four-year run so that people can truly take note of what’s new and noteworthy in the robotics field.

Kathleen McCarthy, director of collections and head curator at the MSI, said, “I really want people to get excited about robots. The reason we use the word ‘revolution’ for the exhibit is becaus I think it’s truly going to transform our world, and what I’m excited about in this exhibit is that it gives people a look as to what’s coming near-term. It’s amazingly interesting technology that I think would benefit from a lot of creative, inspired people joining the field in some way.”

msirobot21And guests may also find the exhibit amazingly interesting, because it includes more than 40 different robots. Now, some of these are under glass and meant only for viewing, but others are able to interact with people or just show off what they can do. The soccer robots from the ZJUNlict Team of Zhejiang University in China show off their cooperative skills as they compete to score goals against one aother, Baxter from Rethink Robotics, Inc. in Boston plays two simultaneous tic-tac-toe games with guests, EMYS from Wroclaw University of Technology in Poland mimics guests’ facial expressions, and the Robotic 21 System from Yaskawa Motoman Robotics of Japan will play a game of blackjack with anyone.

Also available are Yume Robo from Japan’s Muscle Corporation, a climbing robot that you can see at the exhibit entry that offers an example of how robots move; OSCAR from TOPY of Japan that can walk up steps and investigate unstable buildings; three different drones; and Cubelets from Modular Robotics in Boulder, Colo., which allow kids to snap blocks with different functions together to build their own working robots. There’s even a demonstration of a drone, which takes place every 10 minutes on a stage where kids are invited to volunteer.

One truly fascinating aspect of “Robot Revolution” is that it makes one look at human abilities in a more thoughtful way. For example, there’s the challenge of picking something up. This isn’t a task that humans consider much, but for robots, it’s a real challenge because objects come in so many shapes and sizes. Our hands naturally account for such differences, but robots have a much harder time picking things up.

“They have to be programmed to do that,” explained McCarthy. “In factories, they’re going to pick up the same thing all the time, so it’s easy to make something that does that. As we get robots in unstructured environments, they’ll be picking up all sorts of things. It’s amazing to see solutions based on humans, and then the natural world, and then something completely new. ”

So the exhibit includes no less than 10 types of grippers, including the Versaball of Empire Robotics, which qualifies as “completely new.” This is an adaptable squishy gripper that picks items up with an inflated ball. When it’s lowered over an object, the particles in the gripper surround the object. Then it de-inflates, making it possible for the arm to actually move the item with very little force.

“Even if you’re a roboticist, there’s rarely an opportunity for you to see work that’s very different from your own, so this is really an unprecedented opportunity for the public,” McCarthy said.

Another interesting aspect of “Robot Revolution” is the attitude it takes towards the repair and maintenance of its exhibits. “We decided to really embrace that challenge as part of the story,” McCarthy said, “and really talk about the fact that robots are machines and every machine needs maintenance and care.”

There’s redundancy built into the system, in that the robots have backups, but they still need to be fixed. To that end, a Robogarage inside the exhibit lets people see what this type of activity usually entails, and there are usually people walking around the exhibit caring for the different robots. “It’s a great opportunity for guests to get a firsthand look at what a robotics education might look like,” said McCarthy.

McCarthy believes that eventually, an entire ecosystem will develop around robots, the same way that smartphones became more successful once apps started appearing. She hopes that people who view the exhibit may be inspired to help guide the field and create ways of integrating the technology more into our everyday world.

“When we have robots in our daily lives and they are acting somewhat independently, they feel alive in a way that you don’t necessarily feel your phone is,” McCarthy said. “I think it teaches us a little bit about ourselves. I appreciate my own hands more, the complexity of knowledge that I have, and I appreciate humans.”

“Robot Revolution,” supported by Google.org, is a new national touring exhibit that is originating here at the Museum of Science and Industry, where it will be available through 1/3/2016. An additional timed-entry ticket is required on top of general museum admission at $11 for adults and $9 for kids. A Robot Block Party, free with entry, will be held on 7/18-7/19 with live robot demonstrations and family activities.

For additional information on the museum and to get tickets, visit www.msichicago.org

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