Machines Who Think
Ping Pong Madness
Underwater Power Play
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) In our special all contests edition of Scientific
American Frontiers we'll be racing across the country in cars
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Also - people.., and computers. Can you tell
which is which? Battling ping pong machines - they break their
inventor's hearts. And a race beneath the sea, for human-powered
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) I'm Alan Alda. Join me now on Scientific
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) I bought this car a few years ago and I was
really excited about it. What's so exciting about a 1985 Honda?
Come on up - I'll show you. That's right - it's not really
a Honda anymore. It's an electric car. Eighteen batteries.
An electric charger. And up front an electric motor. It's
exciting because you feel like you're at the beginning of
a new way of using energy. Although there are still some pluses
and minus. It certainly puts the fun back in driving - you
have to think about what you're doing. You have to plan your
trip. Can I make it up that mountain? Can I get around the
mountain? Is there going to be a plug on the other side? After
a while I really started to get interested in seeing some
technological breakthroughs. Well, some of those breakthroughs
may come from the people involved in our first contest.
ANNOUNCER Our first car at the line is the Solar Eagle II
from Cal State University.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) 34 cars, 34 eager and hopeful teams line
up in Arlington, Texas at the start of the 1993 race for electric
cars powered just by sunlight. In pole position, Cal State,
Los Angeles - fastest qualifier, and a top contender to finish
first in Minneapolis, seven days from now. Dark solar panels,
which make about enough electricity to run a hair dryer, cover
the car's removable body shell. A couple of months earlier,
I had visited the Cal State team for a closer look.
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) Can I lean on this?
ESPINOSA You can lean on the middle of this tube where there
is a number, that's fine.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Team captain and engineering student
ESPINOSA explained the controls.
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) Now, is that the brake?
ALAN ALDA Watch out!
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The rules allow limited battery capacity
on board - that's what's powering the car right now. But once
the race starts battery charging is permitted only with the
ESPINOSA He can't go fast enough to crash it, I don't think.
Although he looks like he's going fast.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The Cal State car is certainly fast - but
the cars will need more than speed. At the midday stop - eighty
miles from the start - Michigan rolls in first, followed within
minutes by Pomona. All the way from Arlington there's been
full cloud cover, so everyone's had to run on batteries. Pomona's
battery choice - Sears Diehards!
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) Now that's interesting because there are
batteries that are made for solar vehicles that are a little
more complicated than that, right? Why do you use Sears Diehards?
REDMOND This time they're limiting the batteries and the solar
cells to keep the cost down for most of the universities.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Universal choice for body shells is lightweight
- and relatively cheap - composite materials.
MEMBER The whole car is composite material.
ALAN ALDA So a large percentage of this car is just air.
MEMBER Yeah. If you think of it that way, yeah.
ALAN ALDA Between these honeycombs.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) I was impressed with the car's technology,
but I did feel it's ease of use left something to be desired.
Of course, it is deliberately designed for a small driver,
to keep the car light - total weight for car, driver and batteries
will be less than 800 pounds.
MEMBER The canopy's right about here.
ALAN ALDA So, I can't do this ....so I see.
MEMBER With the top of the car on.
ALAN ALDA With the top of the car on? Yeah, I see that.
MEMBER You got to get your feet up here on the pedals and
let me hook up the seat actually.
ALAN ALDA You really need a shorter person. I can't get the second
leg in. I can drive this but I have to keep one foot on the
ground. Which is good for braking or is that the braking system?
We didn't talk about the braking system yet.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) As Day One ends, everybody's still running
on batteries. This is George Washington University, in third
place after Michigan and Pomona. And this is Stanford, running
fourth - but over an hour behind the top three, who are all
within nine minutes of one another. The overnight stop is
Ada, Oklahoma - 160 miles from the start. The cars have been
able to do that on batteries alone - but now they have to
get some sun. Well, the sun was out in Ada, so the leaders
had several hours to charge up after they arrived. And that's
what the top teams expected.
TEAM We have a very good weather predicting capability, and
if the weather changes a lot we can deal with that better
than other teams.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) To get maximum sunlight from today's conditions,
it was worth using precious battery power to get here fast.
WASHINGTON TEAM We went from cloudy, to rain, to sun, to rain,
to sun, and when you have all that changing you've really
got to be on top of things.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) For top speed, the cars can use solar power
and batteries together. Tomorrow that should be possible.
TEAM The preliminary reports that we had a day ago said that
the weather would improve for tomorrow. So we should have
more sun available and I think our batteries will be in pretty
good shape after today.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Tomorrow's conditions should suit Cal State,
LA with their fast car, but they've lost four hours.
ESPINOSA We're probably better than we could be, we could
be stuck on the road. We were lucky that we could get the
car running and our motor controller, or two of them blew
up and we got back on the road.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Day Two and once again the top three are
racing towards the sun that's been predicted for the afternoon.
Only minutes separate Michigan, Pomona and George Washington,
although the stragglers are now twelve hours behind. Under
full power conditions George Washington's lightweight car
could be faster than Pomona or Michigan - so today G.W. makes
a push for the lead. Pomona manages to keep up, and soon they're
both out ahead, running at top speed - about 45 miles an hour.
Right on schedule Pomona and G.W. run into the predicted afternoon
sun. Michigan's now running third - it's probably the most
energy efficient car, with the best range. But when the sun's
out and batteries are full, it can lose on speed. And sure
enough, Michigan lost Day Two to Pomona, who is now only 1
minute behind overall. Pomona came in ahead of G.W. as well.
TEAM We were pushing it there at the end, just running our
own race basically. Jockeying around a little bit with Michigan
and G.W. and right at the end it wasn't until the very, I
think last 2 miles that G.W. had a problem they hit, their
little wheels got caught in a rut right in town here and just
stopped them right down and we happened to be just coming
up on the right side and frankly didn't look back.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Coming in fourth today - Cal State LA, pulling
up from 17th place to 7th - although they're still hours behind
ESPINOSA A lot better than yesterday. We been running hard.
I hope to get some sunshine though. We are really depending
on it now. But we are really happy with how the car's performing.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Day Three - sunny conditions forecast all
day. It'll be another close race among the leading cars -
and things are getting tense.
WASHINGTON TEAM At this point it's a really, really close
race we have a chance to get back into the lead, I mean we're
a half hour behind because of what happened yesterday afternoon.
Um, we can do this. We have a really good sunny day car and
as far as our strategy goes, its gotta stay confidential.
STATE Tomorrow looks bad. That's about it. You know drive
on the high side of what we give em. Don't be always having
us to push em up in speed.
GUY And the solar Eagle II is off the line.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) As Day Three begins, Cal State strategists
have their eye on tomorrow. There are storms moving in, and
when that happens, accurate weather forecasts and energy budgeting
will become critical. RADIO Hey Rick, there's a pothole on
the left. O.K., be careful and you are going to make a left.
10 - 4.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) But for today the strategy is simple - use
up everything, because there'll be plenty of sun to re-charge
with when they arrive.
STATE TEAM That's what we're doing here is trying to set the
speed of the car and adjust it along the way to make sure
that when we end up the day we've just used up all our batteries
and we don't have anything left but we haven't had to stop
before we get to the finish line.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Today Cal State LA hope to use their speed
to move up the pack. Soon after the start, they get past George
Washington. But it's going to be a frustrating day. A minor
problem to fix...and G.W. re-passes. A few miles down the
road - the two trade places again. And again a few miles later...
Cal State's a match for third place G.W., but overall they're
still several hours behind after their first day disaster.
By evening Pomona, Michigan and G.W. are still the top three.
And they’re off .....
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Day Four. With storms moving in, it's going
to be a day for the strategists. How far down can the batteries
be run? Will there be sun to recharge later? The leaders head
out with confidence - but holding their cards close to their
TEAM If you were to ask me about the state of the battery
charge, I don't think I'd give you a straight answer. You
could ask me probably 3 times and I might give you three different
WASHINGTON TEAM That's where the guessing game is right now,
where is everybody. What, where their state of charge is.
Because once the clouds come up, it's your batteries that
are going to make you win the race.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It's clear the fast cars are going to try
to stay ahead of the weather. By midday, almost the whole
field has been caught by the storm. All except six of the
cars have run their batteries down and have to trailer to
the finish - incurring big time penalties under the race rules.
But the leaders who made it in were rewarded not with sunlight,
but cloud cover. Today's "run fast - charge later" strategy
had depended on accurate forecasting.
TEAM That's basically what we were basing things on. Was to
get out fast and get past what was going to be fairly bad
weather around noon time and then get out and get here in
charge, but the charge here is not so good.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Cal State LA won today's leg - but things
don't look good for tomorrow.
ESPINOSA Well we're hoping for some light. We really need
it and it might be a race where who can get further down the
road and trailer in the least amount of miles.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Over at the Michigan camp, they're not giving
TEAM We really aren't too concerned with the weather. Just
we pretty much always know what it is so whatever the conditions
are we deal with them.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) If you think this should be enough to stop
any solar car, think again. As race time approaches, here
9 o'clock start. 9 o'clock start.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Within an hour, everybody's either crawling
along on their last few watts of battery power.., or they've
ground to a halt. Except, that is, for Michigan. They're still
running. So first into Des Moines at the end of the leg it's
...the Iowa State car? That's right - but it cost them a huge
penalty for installing fresh batteries. The real winner today
was Michigan - the only car apart from Iowa not to trailer
in and get a penalty.
TEAM Oh, my gosh, it pays it all back. I'm just so excited
and so happy. This is the man who did it too. I am just so
happy I can't believe we actually made it. I kept on, I kept
on praying in the car saying come on keep it going, I was
doing sun dances and everything.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Suddenly it's a different race. Before, just
minutes separated the leaders - but now Michigan has a massive
two hours in hand. With sun all the way for the last two legs,
the next three cars manage to chip a few minutes off Michigan's
lead. But only some major failure can change things now. Energy
efficiency, planning, strategy, weather forecasting. Michigan
had simply done everything a bit better. And that's what won
them the race
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) No, this isn't a missing scene from "Honey
I shrunk the Kids". The kids are normal size - it's the computer
ALAN ALDA (TO CAMERA) So giant in fact - 20 times life size - you
can walk around inside it. This is the walk-through computer
at the Computer Museum in Boston. And for someone who's crazy
about computers like me, it's fascinating to see what's really
inside one. This is the hard disc. I love a big hard disc.
This is the random access memory or RAM for those of us who
really know. And this is the heart of the whole thing - the
central processing unit - the CPU. It's amazing to me that
what's just a lot of hardware can seem so human. You can ask
it questions and it responds. Sometimes in ways you didn't
expect! Which poses an interesting puzzle. Suppose I were
in here and had control of what this computer says, by hooking
into this board that controls what's on the screen. How would
you on the outside know whether it was me or the computer
you were talking to?
What is your favorite Shakespeare play?
King Lear. I also like many of the comedies. How about you?
Sonnets. Also the comedies, but the tragedies are my favorites.
Are you familiar with Hamlet?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) We're eavesdropping on a conversation that's
taking place on the screen of a computer terminal. Emy Gugsa
is at one end of this lively exchange, asking lots of questions
about Shakespeare. But Emy is really trying to find the answer
to an entirely different question. You see, she doesn't know
whether she's talking to another person or to a computer program.
Her conversation is being tapped.., by an audience at the
Boston Computer Museum. These people are hot on the trail
of the question ..."Can a machine think?" When Alan Turing,
a brilliant mathematician and computer pioneer, explored that
question in 1950, he came up with a test. Computers are finally
powerful enough to take the test, and today are the historic
first trials. The Turing Test is set up like this...in one
part of the museum are ordinary folks who, like Emy, have
no special computer expertise. They are the judges. It's up
to them, not experts, to interview all the contestants and
decide which are human and which are computer programs. Every
18 minutes the judges rotate and begin another interview.
There are two groups of contestants. The first group - human
beings - is hidden away in the bowels of the Museum. Their
job is to conduct normal conversation with the judges over
the computer terminals. The other group of contestants is
made up of computer programs. They're also talking to the
judges over computer terminals. Here's how the Turing Test
will work. There are eight terminals. The judges have to figure
out which ones are run by humans and which by computer programs.
If one of the programs fools the judges into thinking it's
a human, it's called "intelligent" and it passes the Turing
Test. The audience members, watching from the sidelines, will
have their own ideas about who's human and what is not. Now
open-ended conversation is far beyond the capacity of even
the most sophisticated programs. So, to give the computer
program contestants a fair chance, this will be a restricted
Turing Test. Each contestant has chosen a conversational specialty.
And the judges' questions have to stick to these narrow topics.
Let's look at this topic, "Problems with Romantic Relationships".
We're going to give away the contestant's identity in this
one just to get you warmed up.
Where's the best place to meet men?
Perhaps you're not getting enough respect in the relationship.
But I don't have a relationship.
You're not getting enough security in the relationship.
But I don't have a relationship.
Perhaps you're not being appreciated enough.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) No one is fooled by this contestant.
MEMBER That's obviously a computer program.
MEMBER There's just no interaction going on there at all.
They're just about three miles apart all the time.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) So the "Romantic Relationships" program fails
the Turing Test. But as the test got under way, some of the
conversations proved harder to judge. Shakespeare's Plays
is driven by a human contestant. Cynthia Clay is a real Shakespeare
expert. Now remember... Cynthia is hidden away...you know
she's human...but the judges don't. Let's see what they're
making of her conversation.
Do you know much about the authorship to Two Noble Kinsmen?
(ON THE TERMINAL) That is not among the 37 plays, unless that
is some subtitle.
Supposedly it was written by Fletcher and Shakespeare.
Oh. That's interesting.
(ON THE TERMINAL) But I'm required to only talk about Shakespeare.
Why don't we just stick to the Bard himself?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Unlike the "Romantic Relationships" computer
program, Cynthia's on the ball. She understands the questions
and her answers are to the point. So...all the judges recognize
that the Shakespeare contestant is human...or do they?
Which of his plays is your favorite?
Let's see I'll give 'em a bizarre answer. Let's see...Pericles.
I'll bet they've never heard of that one.
(ON THE TERMINAL) Let's see Pericles.
Why is it your favorite?
Because he was obviously called in to play - doctor somebody's
awful script. It was one of the few, maybe only two, plays
written with somebody else.
It was just specific information that sounds like something
that would be programmable. So I just thought that was a little
more on the machine-like side than human-like.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) One judge actually thinks Cynthia is a computer
program...and the audience is split right down the middle.
MEMBER Some of the answers seem too studied. As if they were
somehow canned opinions that came from a large data base.
MEMBER I think the Shakespeare one's human because of the
way it answers questions. It can understand the larger meaning
of the question. It's not just responding to one key word.
MEMBER It seems overly intellectual. The responses are too
perfect. So it makes me worried that they might just be big
They thought I was a computer because someone couldn't know
that much. It's like...people go to school! People learn things!
Think how much Doctors have to know!
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) There's one more conversation that's a real
puzzler and by the end of the day quite a crowd gathers around
the "Whimsical Conversation" contestant. It's Judge Roseann
San Martino's turn to put this one to the test.
Do you have a pet?
Yes, I have a cat. Her name is Bon Ami. Do you have a pet?
Honeybunch the cat has been our pet for about eight years
now. She's a regular little kitten factory.
ROSEANN It was all so personal in a certain sense. I mean
we talked about our pets and it seemed to have a life.
I used to live in Connecticut before all the riff-raft moved
in. But now I call this little townhouse home.
So you live alone?
Everything's been figured out except how to live. How ya'
I'd like to have gotten to know this person, if it was in
fact a person. For some reason I assumed that it was a guy.
It just seemed guy like. You know, I would have liked to have
met his cat, and seen his little townhouse, or whatever. And
just chatted with him a little bit more.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Roseann clearly hit it off with the Whimsical
contestant. What do you think? Is this a human or a computer?
The last round is over. No more conversation. Every judge
has interviewed every contestant. Now the judges have to decide.
For each conversation, were they talking to a human or to
a computer program? It's these ratings that will determine
whether any program passes the Turing Test. Dr. Daniel Dennet,
one of the scientists who organized this contest, will announce
DENNET The winner of the 1991 competition is Whimsical Conversation,
computer contestant Joseph Weintraub. Whimsical Conversation
didn't just win, it was judged to be a human being by five
out of the ten judges. Speaking on the topic of Shakespeare,
Ms. Clay was judged to be a computer by two judges. But perhaps
it will soften the blow for her if she realizes as well that
she was judged the most human on the mean. So she wins both
most human and most easily confused with a computer.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The results of this first use of the Turing
Test are not so important. What matters is that, as Alan Turing
predicted almost 50 years ago, we are now at the point when
distinguishing between humans and machines is a real challenge.
back to top
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It all starts with a box of junk. Students
enrolled in MIT's Engineering Design course must create a
machine solely from the materials provided. In six weeks their
machines will compete in a wild night of mechanical combat.
It's quite a challenge since most of the students have never
built anything before. These science wizards are discovering
that an idea is good only if it can be built. That means rolling
up their sleeves and handling a drill as well as a calculator.
And as 200 students compete for tools, life in the shop becomes
frantic. This is the contest playing field: two tables, separated
by horizontal pipes about 6 feet long. In the center is the
goal - a plexiglass cylinder with a partition running down
the middle. In just 30 seconds, the machines have to deliver
ping pong balls to their side of the goal. Each machine can
carry as many balls as you want...but the whole assembly must
fit into a one foot cube. The machine that delivers the most
balls wins. The biggest challenge is finding a good idea...and
students look for inspiration anywhere they can. For example,
Rob Graham plays football for MIT. The competitive strategy
used on the field sparked Rob's plan: drive straight down
the line. ROB My idea is to drive out on both cylinders and
then once I get to the goal, dump my box of balls into the
goal. So I'll start in a position about like this, and these
will be my struts. And they'll start like this. And then I'll
have pneumatic pistons that will force the struts down and
drive out to the goal.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) As soon as Rob finishes building each element
of his vehicle, he tests the whole design. Testing is the
only way to avoid nasty surprises. And there are always surprises.
ROB The problem is that it's too heavy and it falls through
the middle of the pipes. So hopefully the box of ping pong
balls will weigh less than the masonite.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) This is Heather Klaubert. Heather is an engineering
major - and a member of MIT's fencing team. For her, competition
means speed, aggression and accuracy.
My basic concept is a frog. I want to leap, carrying all the
balls with me, land on the target and dump them. To do this
I have a frog, using the constant force springs, and it's
going to launch off of a lily pad, or a weighted pad that
won't move and will provide enough friction.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Speed and aggression are there, but the accuracy
needs work. And Heather's frog idea almost croaked. According
to contest rules, you can't throw anything except a ping pong
ball. She got around this by combining her launcher these
coiled springs - with her ball carrier. So now she has a jumping
machine - and that's just legal. The students are scrambling
-- and that warms the heart of their instructor, Professor
WEST At this stage, when the student's machines don't work
very well, they become very teachable. It's the machines themselves
that are teaching. When the students has made a mistake the
machine lets the student know because it doesn't work.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Ping pong balls are flying -- and so are
I've heard rumors of a machine that can dump 40 ping pong
balls in two seconds.
Well, I heard about one that supposedly shoots 40 balls in
20, uh in two seconds.
Yeah, I've heard about people who can get like 400 balls in,
in like two seconds.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The mystery machine is the brainchild of
I have 48 balls here inside the box which is attached to a
string to the machine.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The box is placed on a spring-loaded catapult.
When released, the catapult launches the box through the air.
It's a great design -- but it has one big problem: it's not
legal. Unlike Heather's jumping frog, Kris' machine throws
a projectile. That's against the rules, so he'll have to redesign
it. Contest day. The students may not be in such good shape...but
their machines are ready for action. You can shoot balls...you
can reach out.., you can fight head to head...you can even
drive off the road.., as long as you get the most balls in
your side -- you win. Rob's vehicle on the white side of the
table is competing against a pop gun design on the orange
side. It's a slow start -- his wheels hardly hit the ground
before the pop gun machine begins to fire. It's down the tubes
for Rob. ROB I had too much friction on the bottom of my machine.
And these little knobs that I put on weren't, didn't lessen
it enough so that I could drive off. So it didn't work nearly
as well as I had hoped.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) For her first round, Heather is as jumpy
as her frog. She's up against a Model "T". The leap is just
short of the goal.
I just added too many ping pong balls and it was too much
weight. And the frog didn't jump as far as I thought it would.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) This is the former mystery machine, now completely
redesigned. Kris has built an extending arm with a blocker
attached to the front...defense and aggression combined. He's
up against a vehicle -- and it's over quickly for Kris. Here's
what happened. His arm shoots too low, so his blocker hits
the center divider. Kris defeats himself.
The practice attempt that we made just before that was perfect
so I don't know what happened. A little bit of luck is involved
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) After three elimination rounds, every machine
left can do the job. What matters now is how many balls you
can deliver and how fast. For example, on this side 200 balls...over
here, maybe 50. They're both vehicles, and after a rough start
on the left, it's a pretty even match. They both get there,
they both work - but 50 has no chance against 200. The Volume
Vehicle scores a solid win. In this next match intense concentration
takes over...as a light weight extender goes up against a
vehicle. The Extender Contender is fast and fully loaded.
It delivers all its balls before the vehicle even arrives.
In round after round the Extender Contender sprints ahead
of the competition. It's got speed and volume on its side.
But there's another strategy showing a lot of promise: blocking.
This Blocker is really fast. It delivers just two balls. But
it wins because the opponent can't get by the defense to deliver
any. But what happens when blocker meets blocker? This round
is a test of brute strength. Both machines are quick -- they
collide head-on. But Tom's Brute Blocker on the right gets
there just fast enough to prevent the opposing blocker from
deploying...he then delivers a full load.
I was scared that I went up against him. But I thought I might
be able to plow him out of the way, even if he got there before
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) As we move into the semi-finals, it's Dokyun
Kim and his Volume Vehicle, Tom Massie and the Brute Blocker,
Paul Hsaio with the Extender Contender, and Chad Clizzer,
also running an extender. Dokyun's Volume Vehicle is up first
against Chad's elegantly simple extender. The Vehicle's stabilizing
arm deploys slowly so the extender gets a head start. It may
be slow, but the Volume Vehicle relentlessly delivers.., and
delivers.., and delivers. It's a decisive victory. In the
second semi-final, the Extender Contender faces the Brute
Blocker. At this level of play, strategy can make all the
difference. Tom packs his machine in hopes of gaining a volume
advantage. The Extender is intimidating, and Tom's got the
jitters. At the last minute Tom makes a reconnaissance foray...sees
how many balls the Extender is carrying...and decides he can
lighten his own load. Tom blocks out the Extender altogether.
No Judge's decision necessary -- the Blocker is the clear
heavyweight here. The final round: it's Tom's Brute Blocker
against Dokyun's Volume Vehicle. Dokyun gets a final scouting
report on the Blocker .... The news is not encouraging.
How fast does it go?
Shoots real quick.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) And sure enough Tom's off to a fast start.
Dokyun's only hope now is to knock the block off - otherwise
volume won't make any difference. But the Blocker won't budge
-- Dokyun is just shadow boxing. It's a total knock out. For
Tom the Engineering Title is a long coveted prize - ever since
he first saw the MIT contest on this television series, seven
Awesome! This has been a dream of mine since I was like in
the eighth grade. It's incredible. I still can't believe this
ALAN ALDA (ON CAMERA) Some of our most exalting contests are among
machines that are powered solely by human muscles - machines
that race on land, in the air, on and under water. All of
which raises an interesting question - how much power can
a human produce? Of course, it all depends what human you're
talking about. Ed Pinkney of the Boston Celtics is truly a
super athlete - and when he's really pumping he's putting
out as much as 2.2 horsepower... Now wait a minute, how can
a man be more powerful than a horse? Well it turns out he
isn't, because a horse going flat out actually produces over
10 horsepower - although it can only do that for a very short
time. With human powered vehicles, their human engines have
to keep going for minutes - sometimes hours - at a time. So
under those circumstances, a 130 lb. woman like Kim can produce
about three tenths of a horsepower .... While a 160 lb. man
like Alex can put out about four tenths of a horsepower. Now,
of course, that's here on dry land. Imagine working that hard
under water .....
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) And that's exactly what's going on here.
We're thirty feet underwater off the Atlantic Coast of Florida.
This is a contest for submarines which run only on person
power. The propeller is driven by a human engine. Florida
Atlantic University, with their shark sub and its conventional
propeller drive will set the contest standard. At Cal Polytechnic
in San Luis Obispo, in the months before the contest the student
Submarine Club is struggling to create a whole different kind
of propulsion system. Although this concept has never been
used in sub design, it has been thoroughly field tested ...
by whales. Professional engineers at Battelle Institute in
Columbus, Ohio are also pursuing a unique design. But their
experience told them that complexity equals trouble. BRAD
DEROOS The simplicity of the device was the real key. We kind
of thought to try and get something to swim like a fish would
be akin to trying to fly with wings on your arms.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) In Ohio, this pool is as close as it gets
to ocean conditions. And this is their first underwater test.
The sub's body is slender, to cut easily through the water.
But that makes the inside a tight squeeze - so once the navigator
wedges himself in, the peddler has to climb right on top.
On the maiden voyage, you can see Battelle's idea at work
- and it looks promising. Race week, Riviera Beach, Florida.
The subs will compete in seven days of one-on-one races around
this quarter mile-long underwater racetrack. Organizing a
race underwater is tricky. There are divers to position the
boats. Underwater lights to signal the start. Buoys every
ten feet to mark the course. Safety is a critical concern.
Each sub has to tow a line to a topside marker float that
can be tracked at all times. The subs come in all shapes ...
from the pencil sharp ... to the wide bodied. Most have a
few features in common... a rudder for steering left and right..,
and dive planes for heading up and down. But the creative
flair really comes out in propulsion systems --like this flexible
tail that both drives and steers, --arms that push without
churning up the water, --a six-bladed paddlewheel, --twin
propellers that rotate in opposite directions, --and adjustable
blades, on this flying bomb. These designs are strong contenders
for the innovation award, but the real excitement is the speed
race. In the first round, it's Florida Atlantic's shark sub
against Cal Poly Pomona. The systems have been tested a hundred
times, but the nervous drivers just can't resist one final
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Out of the gates Florida Atlantic is off
to a blazing start.
The second boat's coming by now, running smooth. But they
seem to be pretty far behind the other boat that came by.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Five minutes later, it's an easy win for
the shark - local favorites, Florida Atlantic.
Beautiful finish. We have a finish!
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Another front runner - the US Naval Academy.
The midshipmen bring their spit and polish approach to sub
racing. TIM We're wet sanding it to make the surface as slick
as possible, get all the little nicks and stuff out. After
this, we're going to wax it.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) They're up against a different kind of team.
What team are you guys with?
MEMBER Santa Barbara
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The Naval Academy, with their small, sleek
hull should easily out pace the bulky Santa Barbara boat.
Navy takes an early lead.., but then ... a problem. Somehow
they pull their marker float under the surface. That slows
them down. The extra drag of the float nearly evens the odds.
And the Naval Academy wins by only a nose ahead. The midshipmen
are thrilled with their narrow victory. But it's a short-lived
celebration -- because of the safety violation, the judges
disqualify their run. Meanwhile, the Battelle sub is being
prepped for its next run. Their frog-like device has been
working flawlessly, and they're ready for the water. Their
opponent: Texas A&M University. It's late afternoon and the
seas are starting to build. Visibility is bad. Conditions
are getting marginal. Nevertheless, Battelle gets a graceful
We have a launch.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Even the judges are impressed.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) But on the first corner...a miscalculation.
Unfamiliar with ocean currents, Battelle drives too close
to the course markers and they snag their safety line. Stuck
on the bottom, the sub and their safety float. The Battelle
boat is somewhere beneath the chop, but no one knows where.
WOMAN There's only one thing that would've stopped them. MAN
I think they caught a buoy. WOMAN That's what I think. I think
the currents are bad.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The disadvantage of being a landlocked team
has become painfully clear. The engineers from Ohio can only
wait for help to arrive.
MEMBER We design on ideal conditions but then you have chaos
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) On shore, the students from Cal Poly San
Luis Obispo have just gotten their whale tail up and running.
But the whole sub has yet to be tested underwater. Right out
of the gate, it seems they overlooked something: the boat
won't stay level. They peddle furiously, but the whale-tail
sub just dives into the sand. Exhausted, the crew abandons
ship. After four days of racing.., the field is thinning out.
There's back luck.., bad driving...and bad design.
She's coming to the top.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) One team is quietly confident - the Benthos
Corporation, from Cape Cod. Their boat has a streamlined hull
and an efficient propeller. They build submarines for a living
and it shows.
MEMBER The prop was designed around our peddler. We found
out his horsepower, used a computer program to find out the
right shape for the prop, and then had a CNC machine it out
for us. Other than that we've just kept it simple, we've got
a lot of practice on it. We go for a good clean race and we're
Okay, I see the first boat coming. It's the Benthos boat.
Holy smokes - is it pulling! Whooee! The second boat is coming
by the platform now. It's #25. It's looking good. It's got
a ways to go to catch the other one. The other Flew by.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Round after round, Benthos has beat all comers.
They're demonstrating why real submarines use propellers -
for humans, its the most efficient way to move water. Benthos
heads in to the finals.
MEMBER One more race, that's all we got, one more race left.
If they can get us off the starting block clean tomorrow we
should have a damn good chance at it.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) In the final showdown, Benthos faces the
shark sub - and the Florida Atlantic students are planning
to pull out all the stops.
COULSON Up until now we've kind of held back a bit, made sure
we got around the course, didn't get tangled in any buoys.
Today we've got to take a few chances.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It's a contest between two machines driven
by efficient propellers -- and two teams with plenty of ocean
ATLANTIC Ogey, ogey, ogey. Oy, Oy, Oy!
Ugly, ugly, ugly. Yes, yes, yes. Is that what you meant?
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Into the starting gates go the students,..,
and the professionals. They'll race twice around the track:
a grueling half-mile sprint. Seven days and 60 races have
come down to this match. And right from the start, it's too
close to call.
GUY Let's go! Alright Benthos! Ahh ooo!
They're going into the second turn now, to the back straightaway.
They're still not more than five feet apart, it's Benthos
from FAU. They're really moving now.
The FAU boat is ... across the finish line! The other boat
is right behind them. They're about eight feet apart.
ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It's a big win for the students over the
professionals. That's it for our special contest edition of
Scientific American Frontiers. Join us next time. back