Black tie events and robotics are not usually associated, but for its 25th anniversary, Carnegie Mellon?s Robotics Institute recounted its birth in a panel discussion last week.
The Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon is responsible for such projects as Dante, a six-legged volcano-explorer; the development of teams of soccer-playing robot dogs; and, more recently, Red Team Racing?s attempt to win the DARPA Grand Challenge by autonomously navigating across desert terrain.
The Institute?s founders were at Carnegie Music Hall last Wednesday to discuss their younger days and the dreams they had of changing the face of the world through the then-new interdisciplinary field of robotics.
In recalling their work in 1979, the founders said the greatest challenge they faced was not funding, scathing criticism, or skepticism. ?The challenge at the time was space, space, space.... [W]e wanted to create a large institute to fulfill the dreams of Raj Reddy [another founder of the institute], of Dick Cyert,? said Angel Jordan, one of the three founders and a professor emeritus of the University.
Initial funding for the Institute came from two separate sources, according to the founders. In addition to seed money from the Office of Naval Research, it received a $3 million donation from Tom Murrin, an Institute founder and president of the Energy and Advanced Technology Group of the Westinghouse Electric Corporation in 1979.
?I went and made a presentation and [Murrin] said, ?How much money you need?? I said, ?We need $5 million.? He said ?okay? and that was it. It was the only time I got $5 million without writing a proposal,? said Reddy, a founder and professor of computer science and robotics. During the discussion, other members of the panel were heard stating an amount of $3 million for the Westinghouse grant. Reddy later indicated that talks with Westinghouse were in progress for nearly a year before the grant was given, suggesting that the presentation he described earlier was more of a formality.
The modest throng of avid scientists, engineers, and fans erupted into applause at the end of the story. The event was crucial to the foundation of the institute, which has grown into a $50 million-a-year department with more than 300 faculty, students, and staff working on more than 100 projects.
Notable personages in attendance included Manuela Veloso, an accomplished professor of computer science and the organizer of the RoboCup soccer competition; Jim Morris, dean of the School of Computer Science; and Matt Mason, current director of the Robotics Institute.
At the end of the event, awards were exchanged. First, University President Jared Cohon presented engraved silver Tiffany & Co. bowls to each of the three Robotics Institute founders in recognition of their efforts. Reddy then presented an award to U.S. Representative Mike Doyle (D?Pa.) on behalf of the founders. ?You?ll be happy to know I have written many checks for you,? said Reddy as the congressman approached the stage.
Doyle spoke on the importance of Carnegie Mellon to the region and commented briefly on the effect of robotics on the national economy. He also said he was working in Congress to secure support for robotics research.
David Bourne, director of the Robotics Institute anniversary event and principal systems scientist at the Institute, described the event as the focal point of Robotics Week.
?Today was the centerpiece ... people from around the world are here ... any roboticist would want to hear any of these speakers,? said Bourne.