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Real robots rock!

From left: Intuitive Surgical, iRobot, NASA
The latest Robot Hall of Fame inductees include the da Vinci Surgical System, the
Roomba floor-cleaning robot and NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers.

The Robot Hall of Fame may sound like a science-fiction museum, but the latest inductees actually include more real robots than fictional ones. Among the stars of the show are a couple of contraptions that have surpassed science-fiction expectations: NASA's twin Mars rovers.

The other robots on the honor roll are also worthy of recognition:

  • iRobot's Roomba floor-cleaning machine, arguably the first robot to do useful work in the living room (and pay off on the technological promise of "The Jetsons").
  • Intuitive Surgical's da Vinci Surgical System, which helps doctors do precision surgery in operating rooms (including prostate gland removal ... yow!).
  • Huey, Dewey and Louie, the cute robotic gardeners from the classic 1972 environmental sci-fi movie "Silent Running" (just in time for Earth Day).
  • The T-800 Terminator, the killer robot from the future that was featured in the 1984 movie "The Terminator" (a role that arguably boosted Arnold Schwarzenegger's career as California's "Governator").

But could any of those other honorees work on the radiation-blasted surface of another planet, sending back science for more than five years without a single service call? I didn't think so!

The "Class of 2010" inductees were announced on Tuesday in Pittsburgh by the Carnegie Science Center and Carnegie Mellon University, during a preview of the science center's Roboworld exhibition. Starting in June, Roboworld will serve as the permanent home for the Robot Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Fame was created in 2003 to pay tribute to the fictional and real robots that have "inspired and embodied breakthrough accomplishments in robotics." Inductees are selected by a jury of scholars, researchers, writers, designers and entrepreneurs. The latest batch of robots will officially take their place next year.

Matt Mason, director of Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, noted that the real robots outnumbered the fictional creations for the second time in a row. "We in the robotics field believe this is the beginning of a trend, as robots such as Spirit and Opportunity, Roomba and da Vinci are approaching or even exceeding performance levels that once were only imagined," he said in the university's news release.

The Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are all about "exceeding performance levels": NASA's original mission plan called for the six-wheeled, golf-cart-sized probes to last 90 days on the Martian surface - but they're still in business more than five years after they bounced to their landings on opposite sides of the planet.

It hasn't always been easy. In fact, as the years went on, the two rovers have developed different "personalities" in the minds of their controllers back here on Earth.

Cornell astronomer Steve Squyres, who heads up the rover science team, has often called Opportunity "Little Miss Perfect": Sure, she sometimes gets into scrapes, like the time she was hung up on a Martian sand dune, but overall she's had an easy time of it and tends to grab the headlines.

Mark Ralston / AFP
This is a T-800 Terminator model
used in "Terminator 3:
Rise of the Machines."


Spirit, on the other hand, is like the heroine in one of those dark Dickensian novels. "Spirit had to work for everything - literally had to climb a mountain on Mars," Squyres once said. You might say she's been working her fingers to the bone ... if she had fingers, that is. As it is, she's got one wheel out of commission and has to drag it behind her, rolling backwards over rough terrain. Lately, she's also been suffering recurring bouts of amnesia.

But Spirit is still on the march, investigating an intriguing plateau named "Home Plate" (the name refers to the rock formation's resemblance to a baseball diamond's home plate). Opportunity, meanwhile, is breezing along on its way to its next big photo op: the 13.7-mile-wide (22-kilometer-wide) Endeavour Crater.

The other robots have their emotional appeal as well: To the outside world, Roombas may be nothing more than faceless floor-cleaning machines - but some owners have been known to give nicknames to their gizmos, erect Web sites in their honor and trade Roomba tips on online discussion groups.

As for da Vinci ... well, how can you not invest some emotional capital in the device that's doing the cutting during your hysterectomy, prostatectomy, heart-valve repair or weight-loss surgery?

When it comes to fictional robots, the Terminator has already gained immortality in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry, and the T-800's Hall of Fame status only adds to its status as a robo-icon.

"The Terminator represents humankind's greatest fear of robots: that they may one day turn on us, their creators, and seek to exterminate the human race," Don Marinelli, executive producer of Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center, said in Tuesday's news release. The worry about a robot "nerdocalypse" has long been a part of the debate over the coming singularity.

Huey, Dewey and Louie are robots of a different color: In "Silent Running," they're the ones who help preserve Earth's species - even after the humans decide they're no longer worth preserving.

Universal
Space oasis crewman Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) teaches gardening
skills to the robots Huey and Dewey in the movie "Silent Running."

If that sounds familiar, that may be because Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute is involved in a $10 million Agriculture Department program that uses autonomous robotic vehicles to help tend apple orchards and orange groves. Or it may be because the "Silent Running" storyline resonates in a more recent robot movie, "WALL-E."

Speaking of "WALL-E," I'd have to say that the movie's cute robot star should be on the list for a future spot in the Hall of Fame (even though some still debate whether WALL-E was a rip-off of Johnny 5 in "Short Circuit"). Every time the Robot Hall of Fame comes up for discussion, I like to open up the nominations for our "Robot People's Choice" award. So now is the perfect time to nominate your favorite yet-to-be-honored robot - or take issue with the selections so far.

To refresh your memory, here's the list of past Hall of Fame inductees. These robots and the newly named Class of 2010 are ineligible for the "People's Choice" prize:

  • 2003: HAL 9000, Mars Pathfinder Sojourner rover, R2-D2, Unimate.
  • 2004: ASIMO, Shakey, Astro Boy, Robby the Robot, C-3PO.
  • 2006: AIBO, SCARA, David (from "A.I."), Maria (from "Metropolis"), Gort (from "The Day the Earth Stood Still").
  • 2008: Raibert Hopper, NavLab 5, LEGO Mindstorms, Lt. Cmdr. Data (from the "Star Trek" saga).

I'll run through the comments you leave below, get a sense of the leading candidate and post the People's Choice as an addendum to this item. In case you're wondering, previous People's Choice winners have included Robby the Robot (2003), NASA's Spirit and Opportunity rovers (2004), B9 from "Lost in Space" (2006) and the NASA rovers again in 2007-2008.

Update for 11:55 a.m. ET April 24: John Callas, project manager for the rover team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says engineers are trying to help the Spirit rover cope with computer glitches. "The natural question is, 'Is this an age-related effect?' And it could be," he told me Thursday.

However, the team still doesn't yet have enough information to track down the factors behind a recent string of unexpected reboots, he said. Whether the problem is age or something else, the rover team might just have to find ways to work around the glitches. "It's reasonable to expect that this may be another quirky behavior for the rover," Callas said.

Spirit's handlers are pressing on with their plan to send Spirit southward, from Home Plate to a couple of new sites nicknamed Goddard and Von Braun. Those sites may exhibit further evidence of hydrothermal activity during the region's ancient past, Callas said.

Late Thursday, at the end of Spirit's 1,886th Martian day (or "sol") of surface operations, Callas had some good news to report:

"Spirit successfully drove today on Sol 1886. Approximately 1.7 meters of progress was made in difficult, high-slip terrain. The drive sequence ran to completion without error. No faults or warnings were reported. Spirit is power positive, thermally stable and responsive to communication. Solar array energy production improved by more than 10 percent from a dust cleaning event on Sol 1881. The Sol 1887 plan will conduct science remote sensing. Near-normal tactical operations planning will continue for the period ahead and will include enhanced rover telemetry collection techniques to watch for any future anomalous behavior. There is still no explanation for these anomalies. The project is continuing the investigation."

Callas told me he was gratified to hear that the rovers have received new honors. He noted that "Spirit and Opportunity are in that elite vanguard that probably only Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 now share." They've outlived not only their expected life spans, but their originally planned missions as well. Each new turn of the wheel brings the rovers to unexplored frontiers - whether that's Goddard for Spirit, or Endeavour Crater for Opportunity.

"The objectives have not diminished for these two rovers after five years," Callas said, "and perhaps our greatest discoveries are still ahead of us."