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Do The Robot at MSI: 'Robot Revolution' Premieres in Chicago

By Marielle Shaw in Arts & Entertainment on May 24, 2015 7:00PM

While you were going about your business this past Thursday, the Robot Revolution was under way. Never fear though, citizens, this isn’t the precursor to Skynet. Instead, it’s an incredible new touring exhibit that premiered in Chicago at the Museum of Science and Industry.

There was quite a bit of fanfare to go along with the debut, with a live DJ, surging music and speeches from David Mosena, MSI’s CEO and President, the CFO of Boeing, as well as Dennis Hong, professor and director of UCLA’s Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory, RoMeLa, and creator of some of the exhibit’s most amazing residents.

As the speeches wound up, the music swelled and two giant robot arms presented a friendly looking creation named Baxter with an official ribbon to cut through. Cheers erupted in the rotunda.

There were high expectations going in, given the big names backing the project, which include, The Boeing Company, The Kaplan Foundation and United Airlines, among others. As we entered the colorful, spacious exhibit to find a group of robots playing soccer, we had a feeling we wouldn’t be disappointed.

We spoke with John Beckman, the director of exhibit design and development, who explained some of the exhibit’s goals. “One of our big challenges was to make robotics interactive. A lot of these things are not things that the public normally gets to get up close to, let alone control, but that’s what we’re all about at the Museum of Science and Industry, and we really wanted to have that opportunity.“

The museum more than met that challenge in incredible ways. Robot Revolution represents the cutting edge of robotics technology, from the LiDAR system being used in Google’s self-driving car, to robots that use face sensing technology, can climb stairs and walls, or snake through pipes for better access to mechanical issues that need resolving.

The complexity and expense of such machines made it even more incredible that guests of all ages were able to not just observe, but interact with the technology. Whether it’s building your own robot, testing different types of grippers or making a robot do karate, the world is really your oyster in this exhibit. There’s also an interactive show called the Drone Zone where kids can learn about how robots do what they do, through sensing, planning and acting, led at the premiere by an incredibly charismatic staffer named Nate.

Even though we spent quite a while exploring the exhibit, we still missed out on a few things, including getting in a round of tic-tac-toe with Baxter, and teaching the UR-5 Robot Arm basic motions it could then repeat back to us. There’s immense opportunity for interaction, and the hope, Beckman says, is that guests will realize that the future of this technology “is about humans AND robots, not humans OR robots. Thirty years from now, we’re going to be living side-by-side with robots the way we now live side-by-side with computers or mobile devices.”

If you’d like to get a glimpse of what this future could look like, there’s no better or more fun way to do it than to explore Robot Revolution at MSI. This is a touring exhibit, and as such it will be leaving Chicago for other locations on January 3, 2016. Tickets are $11 and can be purchased online.