Robot Hall of Fame

February 20, 2011 – It’s been almost 20 years since the death of Isaac Asimov, and I still don’t have a robot butler. I mean, sure, the Japanese are doing freaky things with human analogues, Watson was on Jeopardy last week, and throw-away Happy Meal toys are light years ahead of my old Teddy Ruxpin, but I still don’t have a robot butler. If I did, I’d treat it like family, and we’d probably solve crimes together.

So until we can create meaningful relationships with artificially derived intelligences dressed in waistcoats and kravats, we’ve at least always got movies and television to satiate our desire for robots in our lives. I mean, I assume we all share that desire, at least. I’m not saying that, instead of counting sheep, you named famous robots to lull yourself to sleep like I did when I was a kid, but I am under the impression that it’s one of those self-evident truths that the U.S. Declaration of Independence is always declaring. You know, all men are created equal. All men have certain inalienable rights. All men dig robots. It’s that third one that always trips up those Middle Eastern countries.

That’s why I’m Caramel Cream Pepsi Jazzed that there exists on this disgustingly biological mud ball of ours a shiny, metallic Robot Hall of Fame. In fact, I’m not even sure I’m up to the task of writing about such a cool topic. Still (and my apologies), in 2003, the School of Computer Science at the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA, established the Robot Hall of Fame to “honor” both fictional and actual robots, from the real-world Roomba to the much-cooler fake-world Lt. Cmdr. Data.

Unfortunately, the Robot Hall of Fame has more Robot and Fame than Hall to it, since it’s mostly virtual, with not much more than a sparse website and a few press releases staking claim to the idea. Hopefully, some rich and philanthropic visionary will one day eschew the boring tropes of human welfare and give the Robot Hall of Fame its own futuristic-looking building and its own generous budget to stuff that futuristic-looking building full of robots. If I ever get that wealthy, and if I have any money left over from purchasing the Elephant Man’s bones, then I’m on it.

Actually, the Robot Hall of Fame does have a small physical presence, and a pretty cool one at that. It’s just that, like this article, it’s not quite up to the awesomeness intrinsic in the idea of a Robot Hall of Fame. Nevertheless, close to awesome is still pretty awesome [Highlight. Copy. Open “Potential Epitaphs” Word doc. Paste. Save.].

You can find the physical portion of the Robot Hall of Fame just across the Ohio-Allegheny River junction from the downtown area of Pittsburgh in the four-floor Carnegie Science Museum. Like too many modern science centers, the building is more Beakman’s World than NOVA, being mostly filled with interactive children’s exhibits. They do have a pretty cool tourable submarine that is parked out behind it in the river and is included with the admission cost, though.

However, half of the second floor is dedicated to RoboWorld, a permanent exhibit on robotics. There you can see small, wheeled robots navigate an obstacle course, watch a giant robot arm shoot a basketball with flawless precision, and other probably cool things that I didn’t pay much attention to because...

In a row of alcoves along one wall of this exhibit stood three-dimensional reproductions of some of science fiction’s most famous movie and television robots, all standing there exactly like I imagine robots do when awaiting orders from their master. With the exception of maybe Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), they all seemed more-or-less full-scale.

And it was a party. In addition to Gort, there was Maria from Metropolis ( 1927), Robby the Robot, who actually has a film resume larger than most SAG members but who is most known from its role in Forbidden Planet (1956), Dewey from Silent Runnings (1972), HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), B-9 from the television series Lost in Space (1965-1968), and C-3PO and R2-D2 from the long-running soap opera Days of Our Lives (1965-present).

The facsimiles were extremely detailed, with everything from C-3PO’s bare midriff to HAL’s blue WordPerfect text screen and glowing orange eye painstakingly reproduced. They were also wired so that if the robot had light-up bits (such as Gort’s eye slit or B-9’s chest panel), they were lighted appropriately.

Each robot also had a placard that featured their name, the years of their respective roles, and a short generic bit of text about them. I say generic, but I did actually learn something from the Dewey placard. Turns out, the Huey, Dewey, and Louie robots from Silent Running were costumes worn by double amputees because they were the only ones who could fit in the squat shapes of the robot design. That’s now my permanent factoid for any awkward conversation lull that needs a “Did you know…” kick in the pants.

Not that it really matters when you’ve got a large Robby the Robot to stare at, but there was also a small display of vintage robot toys and an interesting interactive 15-foot-long electronic board that gave a genealogy of robots in human culture. In addition, the exhibit included some sort of cartridge-based machine for making virtual postcards themed according to the robot of your choice that you could then email to yourself as a souvenir, but some 10-year-old boy was hogging it and wouldn’t accept my dares to go tell HAL that the mission directives sucked or Gort how cool it was that the planet had enough nuclear bombs to not be a planet anymore.

And that’s pretty much it for the Robot Hall of Fame to date. You come in, walk past eight robots like a drill sergeant inspecting his troops, and then you fight ten-year-olds to email yourself a Maria-themed virtual postcard. One day I hope it’ll be a place where you need to take a week off work and stand in line for hours to get in, but until then it’s still a thrill-inducing sight for anybody who has ever tried to create a robot out of tin foil, soda cans, and cardboard shipping boxes. No, that statement doesn’t need a “when they were a kid.” Why would you say that?

And with this posted, it’s nap time for me. IG-88…Mechagodzilla…Johnny 5…Marvin the Paranoid Android…that scary chick from Superman III…Muffit...David Bowie…Dot Matrix…the carnival robot from the original Scooby Doo series…Bishop…the Iron Giant…Rosie the Maid…RoboCop…Small Wonder…Bubo the Owl…every Gobot…the bigfoot from that Six Million Dollar Man episode…Buffybot…Zebtron from The Secret City*…all those bikini girls that Dr. Goldfoot made…Twiki…Ultron…those MST3K puppets…Brainiac…Mr. Roboto…

*Wins the Obscure Award. Here, let me save you some Googling.