The Day I Punched a Robot

While I waited for my bus back to Stuttgart from the Max Planck Institute, I didn’t really think about how one of the world’s most respected roboticists spent several hours mentoring me. Instead, I spent much of the time giggling about how I had, in a very real sense, punched a robot that day. 

Dr Katherine J. Kuchenbecker ran a student research program at the University of Pennsylvania that I had participated in a few years ago. Since I was close to her new city, I emailed her and she, very graciously, gave me a tour of her institute, introduced me to her group members, and then took me to lunch where she gave me a lot of advice concerning graduate school and working in the future. The highlight was seeing a demonstration of the Baxter robot that is used to study both haptics (giving robots a sense of touch / Dr Kuchenbecker’s specialty) and human-computer interaction. My favorite demo involved the robot playing the Rocky theme song as it moved its ‘hands’ ($20 boxing pads from Wal-Mart) around with the expectation that you would hit them. Lest you think such games are worthless, consider how a ‘punch’ would be registered (by sound? sight? pressure?) or how firmly a punch should be received so that the user believes that the robot is safe. Who knows? Maybe a version of this robot will one day keep retirement home residents active. 

Stuttgart itself has a lot of great museums to visit when you get bored with fighting robots. The Porsche Museum was almost like a pilgrimage site since the visitors there were more hushed than the people I had encountered in cathedrals. The Mercedes-Benz Museum touches on the entire history of cars — I could have spent an entire day there. The houses in the neighborhood by the Weissenhof Museum are beautiful examples of modernist construction. You can even find an old-style German neighborhood in Bad Canstatt (one of the few parts of the city not destroyed during World War II). A few days would be necessary to enjoy all of things available to see in Stuttgart. 

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