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When R2D2 meets Endhiran
I propose to consider the question, "Can machines think?"This was the opening of Alan Turing's seminal 1950 paper which is generally regarded as the catalyst for the modern quest to create artificial intelligence. Sci-fi books and movies then went on to give us memorable bots like C3PO and R2D2 from Star Wars, Isaac Asimov's iRobot series and our own Rajinikant's Endhiran. And then there are Michael Bay's giant robots in Transformers who beat the nuts and bolts out of each other.
The annual technical fest of the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, tries to capture the robot-bashing ethos with its recently introduced RoboWars event. The idea at Shaastra (as the fest is called) is simple: two robots (built by students within certain specifications) battle it out with the aim of rendering the opposition's bot immobile. These are not exactly the kind of bots you've seen in the recent Hugh Jackman movie Real Steel, but they're getting there.
So is the event. "It was a hit and drew a lot of crowds and teams from all over the country, " says Sumanth D, organiser of the Robo Wars event. And that's borne out by videos posted online. Not-so-little robots whirr around and slam into each other, trying to break each other's circuits, and they're pretty well-armed. They have hammers, cutters, pneumatic flippers and pushers. Except for flammables, liquid projectiles, nets and radio jammers, any kind of weapon is allowed.
"We had about 80 entries last year and 48 robots made the cut and could compete in the event, " adds Sumanth.
Such events are becoming a regular in technical fests at engineering colleges around the country. IIT Bombay and IIT Guwahati have similar techno-gladiatorial events. With prize money that can go up to Rs 2 lakh, the battles draw a lot of India's robot enthusiasts.
But people like Nitin J Sanketh a third-year student at MS Ramaiah Institute of Technology (MSRIT) and a member of its robotics club, sniff at such events. "We didn't participate in Shaastra event because it's a bit pointless, " he says. "I mean these guys can buy a kit, download a few programmes off the net and assemble a robot in two to four weeks. "
The robotics club of MSRIT has been working on its robot for eight months now. Unlike the robots at Shaastra which are manually controlled, these will be autonomous - capable of navigating an obstacle course on their own. The club has entered the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition at Oakland University, Michigan, and will compete against international teams. Last year, it placed 10th for overall design, competing against 54 teams. The prize: a cool $35, 000. In addition, the US department of defense keeps a keen eye out for talent and technology at this event.
"Funding is still a problem. We have to build the robot and do a demo to get money from the college, " says Pavan Kumar PN, another member of the robotics club.
When asked what brought them together, Nitin replied, "What we learn in class is outdated by about 20 years. Plus, robotics is something which unites all branches of engineering and sciences. " The club has members from the mechanical, electrical, computer science and electronics departments.
Dr Venkatesh G of Bangalore Robotics believes that robotics is gathering momentum in India because it helps understanding of science and maths. "I don't believe in spoon feeding my students knowledge. If they have a physical problem they can work on, they can understand concepts better. Even if they don't get the theory, they can build a robot which can function. Later, they can figure out the laws that govern them, " says Dr Venkatesh. "That way physics is understood better, maths is made more fun. There is electronics involved, a little bit of programming is required, and you need to understand mechanics to make the robot move. "
For 12 years now, his company has been organising workshops, for school students to postgraduates, on how to build robots. Each of his workshops attracts about 100 students. He insists that people need not be engineers to build robots. All they need is an aptitude for science and a desire to build the bots.
National Instruments in Bangalore is also working to make robotics more accessible. It teamed up with Lego to make toy electronic robot kits which can be easily programmed. The company designed a programming language which was simple enough for seven-yearolds to understand.
The idea is that kids can build a robot from Lego blocks and add a few components such as motors and sensors and have fun. They presently have a basic level kit and an advanced kit.
"Currently we have a mentoring program which reaches out to about 150-200 students, " says Dev Chander M, group manager R&D at National Instruments.
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