Most robots are functional. Only a few are edible, even nutritious.
Mickey McManus took five seedless cucumbers, carved them so they looked like fingers and anchored them to a hunk of Edam cheese. To this 'hand,' he attached a small electronic device, programmed to respond to sound; when someone laughed or clapped, the fingers flexed. He brought his cucumber robot to a wine-and-cheese party as an appetizer, along with a robotic Rice Krispies Treats man that pivoted whenever the lights dimmed.
Mr. McManus is neither chef nor computer scientist. He's a Pittsburgh executive who, along with about 500 other locals, recently became an amateur robot designer. They were taught by professors at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, which last year launched a citywide outreach program to bring robots to the masses.
While scientists and engineers have built robots to search for life on Mars and clean out toxic-waste dumps, many of the civilian creators looked to the robots to solve problems in their own backyards. There was a robot that took photos of speeding cars, and another that waved its arms when the street noise got too loud. A robotic sheep mowed lawns, and robotic flags raised and lowered automatically.
'I wanted to try a robot waiter made of bread,' says Mr. McManus, CEO of Maya Design, a local design and research firm. The bread turned out to be too soft to work with, but the cucumbers were perfect. A local art gallery held a reception for the designers' creations and Mr. McManus's edible robots made an appearance -- and a disappearance.
The yearlong program, called Robot 250, coincides with the city's 250th birthday. Teachers fanned out to 13 neighborhoods, providing materials, instruction and troubleshooting. 'We wanted to put technology into the hands of as many people as possible,' says Illah Nourbakhsh, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University's Robotics Institute, who came up with the idea.
Often working in teams, participants built about 75 robots, ranging from small paper flowers whose buds opened and closed, to a working wooden roller coaster. Most of the robots reacted to simple inputs, like noise, light or movement.
Carole and Albert Borek were initially apprehensive. 'We're not arty. We're just old people,' says Ms. Borek, 64 years old.
But after seeing how easy it was to use a basic sensor, the Boreks decided to build a robot to monitor noise on their street, which they considered excessive. They called their creation Boombox Barney. It had a mannequin head and two fabric arms. When noise reached a certain level, Barney covered his ears, indicating that it was too loud and signaling people to pipe down.
The project came together smoothly for the most part, although the Boreks did something wrong at first, causing Barney's arms to go down instead of up when exposed to loud noise. Once that was fixed, Barney worked perfectly. The only problem was that people clapped and yelled at him just to see him cover his ears. 'It didn't keep people quiet,' says Ms. Borek.
Christina Papp, a graphic designer, built a robot that took photos of speeding cars in front of her house. She'd like to work on improving the image quality and eventually email photos of offenders to the mayor's office. Golan Levin, an artist, designed a large, elephantlike snout, dubbed Double-Taker, that turns and looks at passing pedestrians.
People in Pittsburgh have been building robots for decades. Seventy years ago, an engineer at Westinghouse Electric created Elektro the Moto-Man, who could walk and smoke cigarettes and had a 77-word vocabulary. His sidekick, Sparko the Moto-Dog, wagged his tail, sat and barked on command.
Today, there are more than 30 robotic companies in Pittsburgh. They make drowsy-driver warning systems, and robots that help with surgery, unload crates and search for life on distant planets. Alcoa Inc. has a 6-foot-tall robot spokesperson, Al, who hosted a recent Robot Block Party at the Carnegie Science Center.
Part of the Robot 250 event, the block party was billed as the city's largest and most diverse public gathering of robots. A solar-powered robot mingled with hazmat robots that search for explosives. Robots built by teenagers were on display. Red Rover, a four-wheeled robot that has become a local celebrity in robot circles, made an appearance. Red Rover and his creators are vying for the Google Lunar X Prize, a $30 million competition for the first privately funded team to send a robot to the moon and transmit video, images and data back to Earth.
Several other robots weren't able to attend. Moe, a six-legged Styrofoam sheep was busy roaming and trimming the grounds at the city's conservatory several miles away. Moe has a grass shearer in his mouth and ultrasonic range finders to keep him from crashing into things. An invisible fence keeps Moe from wandering too far, although he did get out once and trample the flowers when the fence became unplugged.
Moe is equipped with proximity sensors to avoid running into objects such as small children, as well as an MP3 player that features bleats and a recording of Thomas Edison reciting 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.'
'This is not just a fancy lawn ornament,' says Moe's creator, Osman Khan, a visiting assistant professor of art at Carnegie Mellon. Mr. Khan, along with several other local artists, was invited as part of Robot 250 to use robots to create a piece of installation art.
Mr. Khan thought an electric sheep would be whimsical, but also practical: It would arguably be better for the environment than a gas-powered mower. He hooked up with Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, which has a big yard and was delighted to have Moe, although he actually doesn't cut much grass. Unable to walk and cut at the same time, the robotic sheep goes into mow mode only when stopped. The conservatory uses its own mower to keep the grass in Moe's area clipped short so he doesn't trip.
Although Mr. McManus's edible robots have already been eaten, he created a how-to guide and video, which is helpful, since much trial and error involving other foods preceded the finished products.
Mr. McManus drilled holes in granola bars and shattered pirouette cookies before deciding both were too delicate. He found that apples had strong skin but not enough mass. Banana interiors were too soft. Licorice, which initially seemed promising, became brittle. String cheese, while pliable, lacked structural integrity.
After several frustrating efforts, he consulted Maya's chief technologist, Jeff Senn, who suggested vegetables, which are naturally flexible.
Cucumbers worked perfectly. 'We attribute the success of cucumber-based robotics to the strong exosurface and self-lubricating properties of the garden variety seedless cucumber,' the video explains. A mixture of Rice Krispies and melted marshmallows also worked, although Mr. McManus suggests periodic doses of Pam spray to counter stickiness.
米基·麦克马纳斯(Mickey McManus)将五根无籽黄瓜切成手指的形状，然后用一大块高达(Edam)干酪把它们固定住。他为这只“黄瓜手”拴上了一个能够对声音做出反应的小型电子器件；当有人发出笑声或者拍手时，这些手指会做出伸缩的动作。麦克马纳斯将这个“黄瓜手”带到了一场葡萄酒和奶酪派对上充当开胃菜，他还带来了一个能够在灯光变暗时转动身体的爆米香(Rice Krispies Treats)机器人。
麦克马纳斯既非厨师，也不是电脑科学家。他是美国匹兹堡市的一名企业管理者。最近，麦克马纳斯和当地大约500人一起成为了业余机器人设计师。他们的老师是卡耐基-梅隆大学(Carnegie Mellon University)机器人研究所的教授们。去年，该研究所在匹兹堡市发起了一项普及机器人知识的活动。
从事平面设计的克里斯蒂娜·帕普(Christina Papp)在自家房前树起了一个能够为超速车辆拍照的机器人装置。她还希望继续提高图像质量，最终她将会把拍下的照片通过电子邮件发往市长办公室。而艺术家戈兰·莱文(Golan Levin)则设计出一个巨大的、类似象鼻子的玩意儿，并命名为“Double-Taker”，它的“眼睛”会追随过往行人的身影并扭动“身躯”。
如今，匹兹堡拥有30多家机器人公司。他们的产品包括防止驾驶员疲劳驾驶的警告系统，还有辅助外科手术、帮助卸载货物以及寻找太空生命的机器人。美国铝业公司(Alcoa Inc.)身高6英尺的机器人发言人Al最近在卡耐基科学中心(Carnegie Science Center)主持了一场机器人街区派对(Robot Block Party).
作为“机器人250”活动的一部分，这个派对据称是匹兹堡规模最大，也是种类最多样的机器人大集会。一个由太阳能驱动的机器人和搜索爆炸物的探测机器人们聚首一堂。由青少年制造的机器人也在展出之列。在圈子里颇受追捧的四轮机器人红色漫游车(Red Rover)也到场亮相。红色漫游车和他的设计者们参加了谷歌(Google) Lunar X Prize探月竞赛。比赛的获胜队伍将获得3,000万美元奖金，成为首支由民间出资赞助的探月团队──获胜者将把机器人送上月球并将视频、图像和各种数据传回地球。
莫伊还配备有距离探测器，以防止它撞上各种物体，比如小孩。另外，这只“机器羊”身上还安装了MP3播放器，因此能发出咩咩的叫声，还能播放托马斯·爱迪生(Thomas Edison)朗诵的《玛丽有只小羊羔》(Mary Had a Little Lamb)的录音。
“莫伊不仅仅是个新奇的草坪装饰品，” 莫伊的制造者、卡耐基-梅隆大学艺术系客座副教授奥斯曼·卡恩(Osman Khan)说。卡恩和其他一些当地艺术家都被邀请来利用机器人创造出一件装置艺术品，这也是“机器人250”活动的一部分。
卡恩认为机器羊的主意虽然有些奇怪，但很实用：因为它可能比汽油驱动的割草机更有益于环境保护。他与拥有一个大庭院的匹兹堡温室和植物园(Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens)取得了联系，他们很高兴地接受了莫伊──尽管它实际上割不下多少草。由于无法一边行走一边割草，莫伊只有在停下来的时候才会进入割草模式。温室花园要求自己的割草工人保证将莫伊活动区域内的草坪都剪得很短，以防止莫伊摔倒。