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Guide Index

How Did the Universe Begin?

Where Did Life Come From?

How Did Earth Get Animals?

Are We Alone?

Will Robots Take Over?
in the classroom
TEACHING GUIDES


LIFE'S BIG QUESTIONS: Will Robots Take Over?


Alan Alda's interactions with Flaky the robot show how difficult it is to program an intelligent robot. Flaky is probably the most capable robot that exists today, but its abilities are limited. For another perspective on robotic programming, Frontiers visits Karl Sims of Thinking Machines Corporation, a programmer working in a new field called "artificial life." Using a powerful supercomputer, Sims produces a creature that evolves without human intervention -- in effect, a robot that programs itself.

Curriculum Links
Contest Idea/Activity 1: Build a Robotic Explorer
Contest Idea/Activity 2: Design a Soft Lander



CURRICULUM LINKS

BIOCHEMISTRY

neurohumors
BIOLOGY

intelligence, neurology
CHEMISTRY

neurohumor production


COMPUTER SCIENCE

artificial intelligence,
programming
MATH


logic
PHYSICAL SCIENCE

electrical transmission
TECHNOLOGY


artificial intelligence,
computers



CONTEST IDEA/ACTIVITY 1: BUILD A ROBOTIC EXPLORER

As you've seen on Frontiers, a mission to another planet like Mars requires the ability to explore the terrain from a distance. The Martian rover will be on the surface of the planet, while pilots back on Earth guide the vehicle. This activity will give you practice in maneuvering a vehicle from afar.

MATERIALS
  • large radio-controlled vehicle
  • monitor (TV that accepts phono plug inputs)
  • video cable with phono plug connection (12' or longer)
  • small video camcorder
  • masking tape
  • art materials for constructing a planetscape



PROCEDURE

  1. Attach the camcorder to the RC car. You can either tie it or tape it, but be careful not to touch the lens or get adhesive tape on controls or lens surface. (This step may be difficult and will probably require supervision and assistance from an instructor.)

  2. Connect the video output of the camcorder to the input of the distant monitor.

  3. Separate the RC car from the monitor. The pilots of the "robotic explorer" should not be able to see the car. Pilots can observe the explorer's movement only by watching the monitor screen.

  4. Construct a planetscape with your classmates. Model it after features on Mars, the moon or another planet.

  5. Challenge pilots to drive around the planetscape and identify various objects.


ACTIVITY EXTENSIONS
  • To challenge piloting skills, attach a dowel to the front of the RC car. See if pilots can stick the dowel through targets such as curtain rod rings.

  • Brainstorm a project similar to the mission Jack Farmer is attempting to conduct on Mars. Work with a photography class to create a photo montage of a nearby landscape; see if other students can identify the landscape from the photos. Make an aerial map that includes the features in the photographs.




CONTEST IDEA/ACTIVITY 2: DESIGN A SOFT LANDER

When exploratory probes land on other planets, they must touch down softly. Otherwise, they can become multimillion-dollar garbage heaps!

Form teams of two students each. Use a raw eggs to represent the delicate instrumentation of a planetary lander. Build a cushion around the egg that prevents the egg from breaking when dropped from a predetermined height. You can build the cushion from materials that may include but are not limited to: Styrofoam "noodles," bubblewrap, cardboard, balloons and plastic containers. Teams can conduct a contest to see which eggs survive landings from successively higher drops.

MORE CONTEST IDEAS!

NSTA, in partnership with NASA, sponsors many contests with themes related to space exploration. These include a Mission to Planet Earth and the Mars Science Experiment Proposal. For information on how students and teachers can enter, write: The National Science Teachers Association, Attn.: SSIP Competition, 1840 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22201-3000, or call 703-312-9361. Ask for information about the NASA/NSTA Space Science Student Involvement Program.








 

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