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Living side by side with robots

The Robot Block Party at Stanford University celebrates all things robotics -- from startups pitching their businesses to home-brew builders looking to have some fun.

In celebration of National Robotics Week, Stanford hosted the Silicon Valley Robot Block Party on Wednesday, hosting some of the best in research, industrial, and homemade robotics.
James Martin/CNET

STANFORD, Calif.--When I walked onto the Stanford University campus this week and into the Volkswagen Automotive Innovation Lab, I was greeted by a short, gray robot waving his two long arms -- he was looking for a high-five.

All around me robots of all sizes were roaming the floor. I was trapped -- in the future.

Billed as the Silicon Valley Robot Block Party and held during National Robotics Week, the party yesterday was a celebration of human-robot interactions. Developers, researchers, and makers shared tips and explored the very ideas of what a robot can be and do. The people I met here are interested in robots on many levels. There were startups pitching their businesses, home-brew builders looking to have some fun, high-school kids building competition robots, and Ph.D. students just exploring.

That high-fiving robot? It's the creation of Willow Garage, a founding member of the Silicon Valley Robotics group that hosted the block party. In 2010, Willow Garage announced it would be delivering 11 of its $400,000 PR-2 robots free to research groups. The program, however, which began as an open-source platform intended to encouraged roboticists to collaborate on creating a universal robot language, has quickly evolved. After just a few years, following an announcement in February, Willow Garage says it is shifting toward becoming a profitable and self-sustaining company. What's next in the lives of robots? That's the question everyone here wants to answer.

Even after the PR-2's 2010 release, within a year the stereoscopic cameras that provided the PR-2's vision were replaced with commercially available hardware -- Microsoft's Kinect, highlighting the rigorous pace of innovation. The commercial, off-the-shelf technology available to each of us today, as NASA has discovered, is fast, smart, and constantly upgraded.

And as the evolution of robotics quickens, maybe that's what events like National Robotics Week and the Robot Block Party, are all about. There's a sense that though robots are already a great part of our lives, we are still in the early stages of robotics innovation. Things are evolving quickly. For that reason, a marketplace of ideas such as this is incredibly important.

People and ideas are being connected. Across genres, robotics hobbyists are talking to startups, educators are talking with industry, and students are talking to engineers -- all with a focus on the future -- envisioning a future where automation is smarter, machines are more useful, and everyone has the technical skills to live side by side with our robot friends.