A Man 'Midst the Machines
Your intrepid reporter (me) files a dispatch from the FIRST Robotics competition (a while ago): The crowd roars greedily for action. There is a great clap as they pound their feet upon the stands. The spectators are garishly clad in team colors, cheering their group lustily as the combatants prepare.
Suddenly, a horn sounds. The competitors snap to action, zipping along the court. Plastic and metal clash on the playing fields of, well, carpet. A combatant falls and does not rise again.
Is this a sporting event? A Gladiatorial contest?
No, it’s the semifinals of the FIRST robotics competition in Hofstra Arena. It is here that high school teams from around the region compete to see which team has technological superiority, which can manipulate their robot most skillfully.
The competition is simple, really. The robots are divided into three-member teams that compete. The robots must shoot or guide balls (they start with 40, though balls can be reused) into one of the opposing team’s three targets. Matches last 2 minutes and 10 seconds, during which the teams have an offensive period, a defensive period and two free periods. At the end, teams receive points if their robots return to their home platforms.
I am sick...a sore throat rages, and my headache has reached epic proportions. The incessant cheering of hundreds of high schoolers does not help at all. Throughout the proceedings, I am jostled, nudged and elbowed across the arena floor as the teams prepare to duke it out.
The crowd is nearly as entertaining as the matches. A high-schooler dressed as Darth Vader (complete with lightsaber) and another in a chicken suit wander the stands. The viewers are nearly all clad in attire designating their school and team. They cheer as ardently as if they were at a hard-fought high school athletic contest.
Yet the contest is not yet up to that level. The robots move quickly, but jerkily. Sports fans in search of poetry in motion should apply elsewhere; this is the world of functionality, of sheer efficiency over form. Teamwork is basically nonexistent, and, of course, there is the ever-present “man behind the curtain:” the teams control every movement of the robots. There is no autonomy here.
Leaving the competition, one can be sure of two things. First, that all involved had an enjoyable time. Secondly, these robots aren’t a threat to humanity.