A Retrospective of the AAAI Robot Competitions

By Bonasso, Pete; Dean, Thomas | AI Magazine, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

A Retrospective of the AAAI Robot Competitions


Bonasso, Pete, Dean, Thomas, AI Magazine


* This article is the content of an invited talk given by the authors at the Thirteenth National Conference on Artificial Intelligence (AAAI-96). The piece begins with a short history of the competition, then discusses the technical challenges and the political and cultural issues associated with bringing it off every year. We also cover the science and engineering involved with the robot tasks and the educational and commercial aspects of the competition. We finish with a discussion of the community formed by the organizers, participants, and the conference attendees. The original talk made liberal use of video clips and slide photographs; so, we have expanded the text and added photographs to make up for the lack of such media.

There have been five years of robot competitions and exhibitions, with the first event held in San Jose, California, in 1992 and the fifth held in Portland, Oregon, in 1996. Since that first show, we have seen 30 different teams compete, and almost that many more exhibit their robots. The event has become a key attraction of the national and international conferences. In this article, we look back on the form and function of the five years of exhibitions and competitions and attempt to give you some insights into its history, the technical developments, and the political and cultural issues that the organizers and teams faced over the years. We also try to give you a glimpse into the community and camaraderie that develops among the teams during the competitions.

History

We begin with a quick history of the development of intelligent robots to give a better sense of where the competition robots fit in this development. We found it helpful to draw comparisons with developments in aviation. The comparisons allow us to make useful parallels with regard to aspirations, motivations, successes, and failures.

Dreams

Flying has always seemed like a particularly elegant way of getting from one place to another. The dream for would-be aviators is to soar like a bird; for many researchers in AI, the dream is to emulate a human. There are many variations on these dreams, and some resulted in several fanciful manifestations. In the case of aviation, some believed that it should be possible for humans to fly by simply strapping on wings. Early seventeenth-century clockwork automata similarly sought to mimic the superficial aspects of humans, without any real understanding of how the brain or the rest of the body worked.

There are obvious practical motivations for building robots. People have long yearned for mechanical servants to do their instant bidding and yet not burden their consciences. Such servants would do all the dirty work and never complain. They would be humanlike in their ability to understand what their human masters want, superhuman in their ability to carry out their tasks, and yet somehow unaware or joyfully accepting of their lot in life. Karel Capek's play entitled R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) featured human-like robots that were designed to free humans from drudgery (Asimov 1990). However, the robots didn't like the drudgery any more than the humans; so, they revolted and fought for their freedom. We are still not sure what types of task robots should perform or how they might fit into society.

Not all robotics researchers are focused on reproducing human capabilities. Some researchers dream of building mechanical devices that mimic the behavior of simpler biological organisms such as insects. Most people don't see any need for mechanical insects in a world infested with the biting, stinging, disease-carrying sort, but for some, it is a grand challenge to build a device as adaptable and resourceful as the common cockroach.

In the early years of flight, engineers tried to mimic the superficial aspects of winged flight. Ignorant of the subtleties of aerodynamics, the early attempts often failed dramatically. …

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