Lots of Bots and Tots at Stanford’s Robot Block Party (video)

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Stanford Robot Block Party 02
Kids love robots. Hopefully that means we'll have more robot engineers in the future.

Have no fear of an upcoming war between machines and humans, the fact is that the war has already been fought in the hearts of children…and robots won by a landslide. I had a chance to visit Stanford’s annual Robot Block Party one of the local events that coincides with National Robotics Week. While there’s was plenty of high-level discussion and some ground breaking technology, the atmosphere was decidedly kid friendly. Mini-van loads of the young and their parents kept the Robot Block Party hopping as engineers from the University and surrounding businesses showed off their mechanical wares with gusto. Check out my highlight reel of the event in the video below. It was wonderful to see so many big names from Silicon Valley come out to give the public a taste of what they create. Better still, seeing the enthusiasm the next generation has for robots keeps me hopeful that we’re on our way towards an even more technologically creative future.

Among the many groups on hand were Adept (industrial manipulating hands and arms), Anybots (telepresence robotics), FIRST (robotic competitions), Neato (robot vacuum), Stanford’s Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Lab (autonomous cars), Stanford Robotics, the Stanford Research Institute and Willow Garage. While no one brought any truly mind-blowing announcements to the event, it was clear that everyone wanted to show off the best of their recent accomplishments. VAIL was answering questions about its robotic car and how well it could perceive pedestrians. Adept showcased how it could use a Barrett arm to great effect. Willow Garage had their PR2 hooked up to a Kinect 3D sensor, letting it ‘see’ the kids that were jumping all over it. Stanford Research Institute had its very fun climbing robot that uses static cling to hold onto walls, as well as a new bomb-diffusing telerobot that I’m hoping to get a better look at in the weeks ahead. Pretty cool stuff.

Stanford Robot Block Party
Willow Garage's PR2 was on hand showing off its new Kinect 3D Sensor.

Especially if you were a kid. I’ve seen children around robots before, but the Block Party demonstrators went to great lengths to allow the little tykes free access to as much of their technology as possible. You could climb inside the VAIL autonomous car (while it was stationary), pull on the PR2’s arms, or drive around a miniature version of one of NASA’s rovers. It was a hands-on event.

As National Robotics Week continues, I think we’ll see more children (of all ages, even the grown-up ones like myself) attracted to the greasy glamor that is robotics research. If open houses like the Robot Block Party don’t get them excited, maybe full scale competitions like the RoboGames will. In the decades ahead, robotics is going to transition from a relatively small portion of our sciences and economy to one of its biggest components. We’re going to need a new generation of engineers for that transition, and getting kids hooked when their young is the best way to make that happen. So thanks to all the presenters who showed up to the Robot Block Party. You had more than enough innovation to keep me interested, but it was the inspiration I saw among your youngest visitors that was most inspirational. Kids and robots are a winning combination.

[image and video credits: Aaron Saenz/Singularity Hub]