Robonexus 2005 Debriefing

I’m finally getting caught up on things since returning from Robonexus and one of the last things on my ToDo list is posting something here about the trip.

Before I get to that, I should mention that Susan and I went to the State Fair of Texas this year just prior to my Robonexus trip. Nothing new and amazing to report there but I used the Fair to test out a new camera, the Fuji Finepix A345. The A345 is an inexpensive 4.1 Megapixel pocket camera. I still shoot a lot of 35mm film but didn’t want to lug my Canon T90 and associated gear around Robonexus, so I picked up the Fuji to try out as an alternative. If you’re curious, take a look at a few of the 2005 Texas State Fair photos or the Robonexus photos I shot with it.

Okay, so on to the Robonexus trip itself. Like most trips, it started with the hassle of airport security and placing all my belongings into little plastic bins. I filled one bin with cell phone, camera, keys, change, belt and shoes. It took another for my laptop and a third bin for the laptop case. This was followed by some hopping around on one foot while trying to put on shoes and simulatneously hang to my other stuff so it wouldn’t get stolen.

I’ve been to a lot of places in California but this was my first trip to San Jose. Random San Jose info: It doesn’t look that different from the Dallas area. They’re still using incandescent traffic lights instead of LED lights. The cross walks emit all sorts of weird sounds that are presumably intended to assist the blind. We’ve got nothing like that here in Dallas. The Kinko’s in San Jose have service as bad as those in Dallas.

I ended up in Hotel Montgomery which is within easy walking distance of the convention center so I didn’t need a car. I got in on the first day and picked up two sets of credentials: a press pass as editor of and an exhibit staff pass for the Dallas Personal Robotics Group. Because the DPRG didn’t really have enough advance notice to prepare anything interesting, we ended up just placing some flyers on our table that described the group. I had the flyers printed down the street at a Kinko’s (see above comment on Kinko’s).

I only had time to sample a few of the talks including Matt Mason’s overview of robotics and AI research at CMU, Michael S. Chester on launching a robotics company, Max Chandler on robotic art, and Stewart Tansley on Microsoft’s plans in the field of robotics. I showed up to hear Phillip Torrone of MAKE but he was a no-show. Most of the talks were interesting but primarily technical in nature. One non-technical talk, Joanne Pransky on The Frankenstein Complex and Its Impact on Robotics, brought up more philosophical subjects such the human reaction to robots with intelligence, emotions, and sentience. The talk left a number of people, including myself, involved in debates with other audience members over the subject. Some people still seem to be made profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that machines made of metal and silicon may one day be as good as us meat-based machines at thinking and feeling. No mob of angry peasants with torches appeared however, so perhaps things have improved since Frankenstein’s time?

Along with several other Dallas attendees, I escaped the conference for a few hours on Friday and drove up to Stanford. Sanjay Dastoor, a DPRG member who is now a student at Stanford, arranged a tour of some of the robot labs for us. We checked out the Stanford quadruped and also got to see some of the Stanford Sprawl robots in action (they’re fast!). After the robot labs, we took a few drive-by photos of the Frank Lloyd Wright Hanna House which is on the Stanford Campus. I also got a chance to check out the San Jose Museum of Art since it was just across the street from the convention center, though I had to do that one by myself. It was worth the visit and I enjoyed the Sandow Birk exhibit in particular. Overall I’d say it rates higher than the Dallas art museums but not as high as the museums in Ft. Worth.

Back at Robonexus, I spent a lot of my time networking. It was good to meet so many people in person who I deal with online regularly including most of the fine folks at Servo Magazine. The conference includes an interesting mix of high-end commercial robotics companies such as iRobot, commercial hobby robotics suppliers such as HiTec, and non-profit organizations such as the Robotics Society of America. There were also demos of many robot contest formats including NATCAR, Botball, FIRST, Robo-Magellan, and the Trinity Fire-Fighting competition. One suprise this year was the arrival of Lindz Lawlor and his Electric Giraffe. The Electric Giraffe is a huge mechanical quadruped equipped with more lights and audio amps than your average dance club. It walked around belting out dance-velocity Kraftwerk tunes. The Electric Giraffe was created for Burning Man, which seems to be a venue increasingly used by robot builders to demonstrate their work. After talking to Lindz and others who’ve been there, I started thinking it sounded like a lot of fun.

I returned to Dallas from Robonexus with two general feelings. The first was that the DPRG needs to go to Robonexus 2006 with more people and plenty of hardware to show off. The second was that the DPRG needs to think about creating something worthy of Burning Man. Interestingly, I’ve discovered that when you mention attending Burning Man, people will either react by saying something like, “What?! Burning Man is jest a bunch of nekkid hippies runnin’ around!” or they’ll say, “I’ve always thought Burning Man looked like fun but I’ve never had a good reason to go”. The DPRG members seem equally divided but I wouldn’t be suprised if we manage to make it out there in the coming years.

Bush Lets Microsoft off the Hook

I just heard the news about the Bush DoJ reversing its entire campaign to bring Microsoft to justice for its crimes. Weird. While I’m disappointed, this doesn’t come as a complete surprise given Bush’s lousy performance in office so far. This topic has come up often since the election and nearly everyone I’ve talked to (including myself) has predicted that Bush would cave in to Microsoft eventually. On the other hand, while I’d love to see Microsoft get what they deserve, it may be more satisfying in the long run if we beat them ourselves with Free Software instead letting the US government do it for us. But that’s still a big if.