David Miller
by David Miller
Wed Aug 27th 2008 at 12:56pm UTC

Pittsburgh: Robots Are Cooler Than Cows

One of the keys to building a sustainable, creative economy is leveraging a city or region’s assets and engaging the citizens with those assets. A great piece in today’s WSJ highlights how Pittsburgh, PA and Carnegie Mellon University (where Richard taught/lived for years) has supported its citizens’ efforts to learn about and build robots – including edible robots! Here is the website for Robot 250 (the year-long robot festival).

From the article by Clare Ansberry:

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…

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…

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.

Pittsburgh has had many struggles over the years, but is continually trying to use its historical strengths to claw its way back to the leading edge of the economy. Many cities and regions could take a cue from Pittsburgh’s efforts to engage its people and their creativity. What is your city doing? Is it working?

2 Responses to “Pittsburgh: Robots Are Cooler Than Cows”

  1. Elizabeth M Says:

    You gotta give Pittsburgh credit. I grew up not far from there and this steel town has really managed to foster a decent creative community that gives the city a bigger definition than just being known as the home of the Pirates, Penguins, and Steelers (though I do love me some Steelers…).

  2. Daniel Carins Says:

    This article provides a European perspective:


    It’s in response to a report by a “branding consultant” examining the discrepancies between the image that a city’s brand suggests, and the reality on the ground in terms of “amenities”. It’s suggesting that there are several European cities that currently undersell themselves, that pose a big risk to UK cities that oversell themselves (like Liverpool… man, the most over-hyped place on the planet!)