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Carnegie Mellon Launches Project to Preserve History of Robotics

CMU RoboticsProject400x275

July 15, 2021

Carnegie Mellon University has announced the launch of The Robotics Project, which aims to preserve and promote the legacy of the field of robotics. Its first exhibit, Building the Robot Archive, documents the legacy of robotics at CMU and provides a behind-the-scenes look at the collaborative effort between roboticists and archivists to document the field’s history.

“Our team faces challenges in this work, and we’re developing unique methods that will allow us to preserve this history so that current and future generations can understand the evolution of robotics and its significant impact on the modern world,” said Katherine Barbera (pictured, right), an archivist and oral historian in the CMU Libraries, and lead archivist for The Robotics Project.

The Robot Archive, a core component of the project, will include supporting materials that include prototypes, parts, models, videos, images, code, research proposals, emails, websites and even trading cards. The goal is to help answer questions about the people and research involved, the robot’s actions and the project’s intent. Stories from roboticists, engineers, scientists, students and others aim to bring the work to life, CMU said.

CMU KateBarbera“For over a decade, I have been fortunate to work with teams in the field of robotics and autonomous vehicles, together witnessing incredible breakthroughs to some of the world’s most complex challenges,” said Bryan Salesky, founder and CEO of Argo AI. “We often say that Argo was founded on the shoulders of the roboticists that pioneered this industry, and we are thrilled to preserve and celebrate this rich history with The Robotics Project.”

One of the items in the archive is a video shot in the early 1980s on CMU’s campus, featuring Ivan Sutherland riding on top of the Trojan Cockroach, a six-legged machine considered the first controlled by a computer and capable of carrying a person. In the video, Sutherland has the machine walk forward, backward, and sideways, turning 180 degrees as well. At one point, he attempts to balance the machine on only two legs. “We believe that a mastery of balance will be important to future walking machines,” said Sutherland in the video.

As many of the pioneering robots and innovators get older, the world risks losing these pieces of history, CMU said. Some robots were discarded, or were stored in warehouses and fields. Some data and documents were stored on magnetic tape, disks and other obsolete media, spurring the need to capture stories and preserve the work.

The project is being supported by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, as well as private donors. The complete first exhibit, Building the Robot Archive, can be viewed online here.

Editor’s note: CMU’s Aaron Aupperlee contributed to this report.

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