The Invasion of the BigBots
This summer Pittsburgh asks itself, what is a robot?
These are exciting times for our region, recognized as a global leader in the development and commercialization of robotic technology. Bots are a big part of our emerging identity, yet would we recognize one if we saw one? Drove by one? Heard one? Met one at the grocery store, the hospital or a city park? If we are to embrace the future, shouldn’t we know where and how to find it?
Eleven giant robotic installations will emerge in, on, around and on top of the city for two weeks from July 11 to July 28. Called the BigBots
and created by Pittsburgh artists and technologists, the Robot 250 Festival
marks the culmination of a year of workshops and activities that have been a part of Robot 250
, a high-minded celebration that is helping the city commemorate Pittsburgh’s 250th anniversary.
One word of caution—prepare to have any preconceived notions shattered.
“Robot 250 is about breaking the boundaries of who is making robots and the thinking about robots,” explains Ian Ingram, organizer, artist and curator of BigBots. “Everyone has a different idea of what a robot it is.” Connecting the Bots
In Ingram’s view, bots represent an important element of the human psyche that connects us to artifacts of art, literature and technology. Mechanical men and creatures have been with us a long time, but are they fighting machines, Trojan horses to be feared, or something entirely different?
"Artificially intelligent robots, when we succeed in making them, will be the first things we've made that can reflect on the nature of their origins," explains Ingram, elaborating. "If they're born of the negative aspects of mankind, that would be a shame. A goal of this project is to rethink the trends that are currently shaping robotics and open the issue of what a robot can and should be."
It was during a quiet meal of crêpes at a local eatery that the team from the CREATE Lab
at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute
conceived the idea of a city-wide robotics celebration, a way to draw communities, families and students to learn about the fabulous world of technologies like qwerk, gigapan and canary. Carnegie Mellon
and the University of Pittsburgh
launched the program last year with support from a host of local community groups, local foundations and an advisory board of illustrious, forward thinking Pittsburghers. Many of the projects completed during the year will be featured citywide at exhibits during the Robot 250 festival.
Ingram, Carl DiSalvo and Illah Nourbakhsh spearheaded the year-long lineup of robotic activities leading up to this event, which includes more workshops, outdoor displays, movies and “surprise” installations. Everyone is involved, from The Mattress Factory
toThe Andy Warhol Museum
, The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh
and Quantum Theatre
, to name but a few. Mapping It
You’ll need a map to plan your approach. Then again, some of the BigBots may find you. In the PPG Plaza, the Reach ROBOT by Grisha Coleman is in the air, an ethereal robotic composition that will be orchestrated by the people that pass through the space, woven with the lyrical threads of Pittsburgh’s past and future.
Using technologies that include laser-sensing devices, a network of strands will be suspended above the heads of the public, explains Coleman, a New York City-born composer, choreographer and performer and current research fellow for the Studio of Creative Inquiry
“I wanted to harvest the existing patterns in terms of the motions of the space,” she explains. “The spontaneous choreography, the gestures of walking and stepping and reaching as triggers for the sound. I wanted the sound to reflect the history of the legacy of Pittsburgh, its musicians and artists and innovators, particularly in regard to black Pittsburgh and what it might mean.”
In another corner of Pittsburgh, actually the roof the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, artists and engineers Gregory Witt and Joey Hays have put a new spin on sustainable rooftops with their Green Roller Coaster. The BigBot is an old-fashioned roller coaster loop for plants, the presumably eager passengers on a rollicking ride above the museum entrance.
Embedded in the car is a soil moisture sensor, an accelerometer and a web cam that will send data on how entertained the sedum is at any given time on the rickety loop. Visitors to the museum can visit a kiosk and check their progress.
“The whole apparatus is a robot to keep the plants entertained,” explains Witt. The duo tried a corkscrew turn in the loop, but the plants weren’t amused, he adds. It just goes to show that robots can be nature loving, if not aimlessly whimsical, Hays adds.
Another BigBot takes nature meets urban space as its inspiration, a mobile artwork that houses five motion activated mini-theaters called the Look-See Tree. From afar, viewers see a sparsely limbed tree trunk lying on its side, supported by wheels and connected to a bike. Carnegie Mellon artist Ally Reeves plans to peddle the roving exhibit from one park to the next this month with Citiparks Roving Art Cart
“The element of spectacle is maybe the funniest part about it,” she laughs, having already encountered a powerful response from people on the streets who’ve passed her by. “In the repetitiveness of everyday life, the Look-See tree passes through their day and shakes them awake.”An Urban Safari
Ingram sees the BigBots installation as a pilgrimage opportunity for the city, an urban safari that can be an engaging summer activity. His own artistic contribution encourages just that—a giant, 12-foot tall hand that will swivel atop the Warhol building, a finger that points to all the goodness in Pittsburgh.
Several observation platforms will be placed within line sight of the pointing finger, “You’re #1,” a homage not just to sports fans but the entire region.
“Because Pittsburgh deserves a hand,” says Ingram. “Let’s be joyous. And curious. Let’s wonder about where indeed the giant hand, perched atop one of Pittsburgh’s fair Northside buildings, is pointing. And let’s wander to those spots ourselves and in that journey discover places we had never been before, some well-known and in plain view, some secret and tucked away.”
For an extensive list of events for the Robot 250 Festival and map to the BigBots, click here
. Ready, set go!
is Innovation and Job Growth news editor for Pop City.
Ian Ingram, curator
Grisha Coleman at PPG Plaza with fellow collaborators Matt Schlueb (left) and Frank Broz (right)
Gregory Witt (left) and Joey HaysAll photographs copyright Brian Cohen