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Robbie the Robot in the Hall of Fame.
Robbie the Robot in the Hall of Fame.

Roboworld (Closed)

Field review by the editors.

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh brims with noteworthy attractions: a giant model train layout of western Pennsylvania; a Cold War submarine floating outside in a river; a full-size replica of an International Space Station module with a Zero G toilet as a photo-op.


What lured us to the Center, however, was Roboworld, "the largest permanent robotics exhibit in the world." It's not quite as grand as it may sound -- just one gallery in a much larger building -- but it certainly is a shrine for robot-lovers and a tech showcase for a city that now calls itself "Roboburgh."

Roboworld grew out of the Robot Hall of Fame, conceived in 2003 by Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute, "a tribute," says its entry plaque, "to the fictional machines that helped spark the imaginations of those who created the real robots that followed." The Hall was just an idea until robot artist Fred Barton was hired to build full-size replicas of the inductees, which were then put on display with the opening of Roboworld in 2009. Hollywood metalloid megastars such as Robbie, Gort, and Hal 9000 are here, as are the robots from Metropolis, Silent Running, and Lost in Space; and a chatty C3PO and R2D2.

Mars lander was a robot.

The rest of Roboworld is devoted to mostly uncelebrated, blue collar worker robots -- no domestic Roombas or military killer drones, at least not yet. Beeps, buzzes, and bangs echo across the displays as the robots perform their duties.

A "RoboThespian" model named Andy serves as Roboworld's greeter. Pre-scripted questions on a touch-screen encourage human interaction; we scrolled down and chose, "Will robots take over the world?" Andy's answer was reassuring. Robots, he said, "still depend on you for everything!" He added that, "For every job that a robot takes over for a human, there are other human jobs created!"

You vs. the air hockey robot.
You vs. the air hockey robot.

Maria the Robot. Metropolis, 1927.
Maria the Robot. Metropolis, 1927.

Similar upbeat assessments pop up throughout Roboworld, even as the featured robots repeatedly demonstrate their ability to crush any human competitor. The invincible air hockey robot, for example, is dismissed as over-specialized; if you challenged it to a game of chess "you'll win every time," notes an accompanying sign. Ditto for the basketball robot; although it nails 98 percent of its free throws, it "can't sense or think" and is "primitive compared to humans."

Can you read the large neon binary code-art above the displays? Of course you can't, but don't feel inferior -- it's just Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, telling our metal servants to be obedient and to never-ever do us any harm.

Dozens of interactive exhibits demonstrate the superiority of a drug dispensing robot, a sewer crawling robot, a hospital delivery robot, and even an artist robot (And downstairs in the snack bar you can buy a desert expertly prepared by a frozen yogurt robot). You can speak with a "chatbot" as it attempts to perfect its human conversation, while an IBM "facebot" studies your expressions so that it can flawlessly "evaluate human interest in products or product messaging." Products sold to us by robots, perhaps?

Roboworld is telling us, as tactfully as it can, that robots are going to be a big part of our future whether we want them to be or not. A small "Tie Your Shoes" exhibit shows that there are still some things that humans do better than robots (Until laces are replaced by robot-friendly velcro straps, of course). Still, it's better than being vaporized by Gort or killed in space by Hal 9000, and, given a choice, we would rather repair a robot than crawl through a sewer.


Carnegie Science Center

Carnegie Science Center. North side of the city, along the riverfront. I-279 northbound exit 1B. Merge onto Reedsdale St., then quickly turn left at the stoplight onto Allegheny Ave. You'll see the Science Center ahead on the right.
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