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Letter to Educators
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The Frontiers Decade:

The last decade of the 20th century gave us some amazing innovations from the cyber world: virtual reality therapy, long-distance robotic surgery, wearable computers, robotic spacecraft, robots that paint pictures and play soccer -- even a digital Alan Alda. Frontiers has shown viewers many stories about how computers are changing the world we live in.


For the past decade, Frontiers has followed the evolution of a robot named Cog, the creation of MIT professor and artificial intelligence guru Rodney Brooks and his team. Cog's designers and builders are trying to duplicate the human form and its functions.

As in nature, form and function are both important to the design of a robot. In this activity, you'll design a robot while paying attention to both form and function. You need only paper and drawing implements -- or, if you prefer, draw your robot on a computer. And if you want to make it come alive, you can try doing that, too!


Design and draw a robot that will search for deposits of underground minerals. Its form must fit its function. Your design should include details of the sensory and motor functions of the robot, as well as reflect the form of an organism that functions in a similar manner in the real world. Follow the steps listed here to develop and draw the robot. Work in small groups or teams.


  1. Brainstorm. Identify what jobs your robot must perform to complete the mining task (function). Then brainstorm the design, including features you want to include (form). For example, a mining robot will have to dig; it will have to find and bring back a small sample; it will have to remember where it found the sample. List the jobs and corresponding design features.

  2. Identify analogous organisms. Next to the jobs you've listed, identify organisms with a form that might fit the task.

  3. Draw your robot. Use your notes to design your robot. Your drawing may be a hybrid of the organisms listed or it may be totally different from the suggestions. Remember, your drawing must reflect the mechanical nature of parts that will make up your robot. For example, "Nailbot" (below) is a robot assigned the task of hammering nails into inaccessible places.

  4. Label your robot. Label the major features and parts of your robot and briefly describe how they function to accomplish a job.


  1. Visit the MIT Cog Shop at

  2. For a great tour of robots and robotics history, see


Stories and episodes about robots and intelligent computers include "Teaching Computers to Think" (Show 201), Flakey in "Will Robots Take Over?" (Life's Big Questions, Show 501), Inventing the Future (Show 701), Robots Alive! (Show 705) and Natural Born Robots (Show 1002). Please visit the Subject-Area Search feature on this website for more information about these Frontiers shows and related activities!


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.