Robots exhibit combines man and machine at Mayborn

Baylor University's Mayborn Museum Complex presents the Robot's+ Us exhibit, on display from Jan. 26 to April 28, 2013.
Baylor University’s Mayborn Museum Complex presents the Robot’s+ Us exhibit, on display from Jan. 26 to April 28, 2013.

By Taylor Rexrode
Staff Writer

The Mayborn Museum Complex brings together man and machine with the new “Robots + Us” traveling exhibit.

The exhibit, rented from the Science Museum of Minnesota, was displayed in Amarillo last fall and arrived at Mayborn for the exhibit’s grand opening last Saturday.

Rebecca Tucker Nall, changing exhibits manager at Mayborn, said she likes all that “Robots + Us” offers interactivity and family-friendliness.

“We want to be both fun and educational,” Nall said. “We booked this exhibit in the spring so that we could have school groups come and interact. That’s the main goal of museums, always, educating and sparking interest in people.”

The exhibit offers many hands-on attractions such as the Robot Arm. A cylindrical case in the middle of the exhibit holds the white robotic arm, similar to those robots used in assembly lines that perform repetitive tasks. Participants can challenge the arm to a race where they have to put together a small puzzle faster than the robot.

Mark Smith, assistant director of marketing, promotions and events at Mayborn, said he likes challenging the Robot Arm.

“It presents a mental challenge,” Smith said. “You have to put together a puzzle and you have to race against a piece of hardware that seems a whole lot smarter than you are.”

Upon winning, the Robot Arm “gloats” with a robot victory dance and then puts away his puzzle pieces, waiting for the next challenger. The best strategy for beating the robot arm lies in the two-player feature of the attraction. Two people can take on the Robot Arm on opposite sides of the display, dividing the attention of the machine.

“That’s when you can usually win,” Nall said.

Other interactive areas include the Leg Lab, which allows museum-goers to rearrange legs on a small bot and watch it walk inclines and climb stairs. Another point of interest is the Mobile Robots Arena, where small robots on wheels avoid obstacles, such as walls and other bots, while they follow lights shined in front of them.

There are other educational pieces along the walls as well, showing the progression of the technological age and people’s draw to artificial beings as companions.

“What the exhibit does is compare the beginning urges of people wanting to animate,” Nall said. “It compares popular culture and fiction to what we can do with robots. There’s a video that talks about the trend toward having more artificial friends than pets and what that says about our society.”

According to the exhibit overview on the Science Museum of Minnesota website, the exhibit works to show people’s humanity. It explores our fascination with creating things like us. But even Lena, a computer program Chatbot that simulates conversation, shows museumgoers that there are limitations to our humanlike creations.

“Chatbots are logic systems of advanced statements,” Lena said. “We look for keywords and then say the answer that fits best. I can talk about this exhibit but not much else.”

The “Robots + Us” exhibit will show at the Mayborn Museum until April 28.

The Mayborn Museum will host special events on Saturdays in February. Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology (BEST) robotics groups from Central Texas will demonstrate their homemade robots at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Mayborn rotunda. The McLennan County Sheriff Department will show its bomb detection robot at the museum on Feb. 9.

General admission at the Mayborn Museum is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and $4 for children 18 months to 12 years.

Baylor students receive free admission with a student ID. The museum offers free admission on the first Sunday of every month.