I was sitting beside Ardie the University of Canberra robot on the stage of the Miles Franklin Primary School on Thursday during a lull in his performance when suddenly he seemed to engage me in conversation.
"My batteries are fully charged," he volunteered, boasting a little, his eyes changing colour (from red to green to lilac) as he spoke.
Taking this to be him initiating a conversation about our health I congratulated him on feeling so well, adding that while, at 68, I couldn't claim that my batteries were any longer fully charged, I was doing OK for a chap of my age. Then I talked a little about my prostate before pausing to allow Ardie to talk about his.
But he remained tight-lipped (not that the plastic contraption has lips) and in any case was soon whisked away and put to work by his human colleague Associate Professor Roland Goecke of UC's Faculty of Education, Science, Technology and Mathematics.
Ardie was at the school to work and play with the Year 3 class the Sapphires. They were completely charmed by him, but not awed because it is part of Ardie's charm that he's not a towering intellectual and does make the occasional mistake.
"Am I walking in circles?" he wondered at one point (he was supposed to be walking in straight lines) and the 25 Sapphires chortled to him that, yes, you are, you silly little duffer!
But however muddle-headed he may seem (is it an act, masking a supreme intellect?) Ardie has all sorts of clever technology packed into his small body (he is about the size of a young cocker spaniel). He may not have a prostate but he is for example equipped with a camera so that he can "see" where he's going and with sonar so that, like a bat, he's warned if he's about to collide with anything.
As we waited for the Sapphires to sparkle into the hall Goecke explained that "This is an outreach program [reaching out from his uni's faculty] and what we try to do is to stimulate the children's interests in science and technology."
"But rather than doing it in a boring, dry way, this is something the children find very exciting, very cute. You can see here on the floor we've got some [walking] courses marked. The students will learn in a very simple way how the program for Ardie should be set to get him to walk along the course lines. So they will learn the commands of moving forward, measuring and telling distances, turning left and turning right, all the sequences that Ardie needs.
"So it's all about reiterating what the kids have already learnt at school [about measurements and directions], but in a fun way so that hopefully over the years they'll stay interested and come to university [to do science and maths]."
Ardie, inanimate so far, was plonked down, sitting, in the midst of a square of sitting children. And then to gasps of "Cool!" from his audience his display of charm began as he got up, from his sitting position and a stood up in exactly the way a (slightly stiff, perhaps 68-year-old) human does.
All robots have an eerie presence about them. They seem somewhat alive. Dr Christoph Bartneck of New Zealand's University of Canterbury has found that humans, questioned, didn't think they'd be able to smash a human-shaped robot to smithereens or, because of a sense it might be watching them, to undress in front of one. Could you, readers, undress in front of Ardie, especially given that his bright eyes change colour when he's aroused?
And of course, still with our half-sense that robots are alive, the temptation to talk to them (as I was to show in my attempt to chat with him) is overwhelming. And so, as Ardie approached each intersection of his course the Sapphires would shrill an urgent "Stop!" to him as if he had ears to hear them. One little boy urged the robot on with a "Go, Ardie!"
And in Ardie's case his general failure to walk robotically in the straight line programmed for him added to the feeling that he might have a mind of his own. At one point, leaving the course entirely, he began to set off across the hall (his walk is a shuffle giving off a loud plastic rattle) in the rough general direction of Yass. Then (again adding to the sense of his having a soul) after his first of his two big workouts, he wiped some imaginary sweat from his plastic brow with his plastic hand with exactly the gesture with which perspiring runners wipe their brows at the end of The Canberra Times Fun Run.
Then, needing to stretch, he invited the Sapphires to join him in his Tai Chi routine, during the course of which he even sometimes stood on one sturdy leg.
Then, waiting while his second course was set up, getting his breath back and sitting beside me on the stage, a little green light in his chest pulsed on and off at about the pace a panting person's heart might gallop. And that was when Ardie, somewhat alive, seemed to begin to natter to me.
We think Ardie was only feigning muddle-headedness. Having to leave before the end we didn't get to see which of them, Ardie or the professor, drove their car back to the uni.
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