From the Ether

SAN MATEO (04/18/2000) - Ten days have passed, but the FIRST Robotics Competition -- 14,500 teenagers and 270 robots at a three-day sporting extravaganza in sunny Orlando, Florida -- still chokes me up with tears of joy.

Contrast this with apocalyptic fears raised about robotics by Sun Microsystems Inc. founder Bill Joy with his cover story in the April issue of Wired.

In 1989, Dean Kamen founded FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). His plan was to, well, change American culture.

Kamen says we get what we celebrate. And our culture celebrates sports.

This gets us several hundred NBA millionaires. But it also gets us several hundred-thousand hoopsters who are not much good at anything else.

FIRST celebrates teams of teenagers playing with science and technology -- playing not in nerdy science fairs, but in exciting robotics competitions among teams of teenagers, professional engineers, teachers, and parents.

Thanks to the Walt Disney Company, FIRST's ninth annual extravaganza was held at Epcot, which in 1966 was an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

Today, Epcot is short for Every Person Comes Out Tired.

FIRST's teenagers came out tired as if they themselves had physically played the 500 rounds of competition over three days. (The rounds were actually played by teams of their battery-powered, radio-controlled robots.)No two robots were the same, but most could reach well above 7 feet and raced around at upwards of 10 feet per second.

They played 2-on-2. They scored points by quickly gathering balls, by violently blocking opponents, and in the end by dramatically lifting themselves off the floor.

I volunteered to judge technical excellence, which took me into the pits. There I found teenagers and their robots, each built in preceding weeks from a standard kit of raw materials.

The kits are designed each year -- along with the competition's changing rules -- by Kamen and MIT Professor Woody Flowers.

It was the kits that suddenly saved me from Joy's fears about robotics.

Joy raises modern technology's potential for runaway self-replication. Robots will be smarter than humans soon -- say, by 2030 -- and they could conceivably reproduce themselves and replace us.

Reading Joy's Why the Future Doesn't Need Us, various Luddites are now crawling back out from under their rocks and shouting that robotic, genetic, and nanotechnic research must be stopped!

Although I admire Joy's arguments, and especially that he took the time to make them, I remain enthusiastic about robots. Why? Because self-replication requires primordial soups. Robots require standard kits, the raw materials from which to build themselves, in sufficient quantities and with just the right mix of ingredients.

Primordial soups do occur -- evidence us -- but they are about as likely as Earth colliding with life-ending asteroids.

More likely is that the number of teenagers building robots at FIRST will continue growing exponentially, as it has for a decade now. They continue a long, slow, upward process that began long before we primates cobbled our first axes.

Information technology is driving the process for now. FIRST teenagers are adding computing and communication to their competitive robots.

The teenagers are venturing beyond mainframes, minicomputers, PCs, mobile wireless PDA (personal digital assistant) telephones, and always-on broadband Internet appliances.

They are building a million different "things that think," as the MIT Media Lab calls them.

If some asteroid doesn't erase us sooner, FIRST's teenagers will eventually let us choose futures outside the cancerous carbon machines in which our immortal spirits are currently stuck.

Read Joy's Wired article at www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.04/joy.html. Then begin answering his questions by going to www.usfirst.org.

See how you might bring computing to a team of teenagers in your hometown.

Technology pundit Bob Metcalfe's children will soon be teenagers, and he hopes they'll help him win the race against time and emerge immortal, uploaded in silicon at www.infoworld.com/metcalfe.

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