Granted, college basketball stars galloping down the court get a tad more attention than high school robots rolling around, bumping into each other, and trying to toss inflatable life preservers onto poles. But eventually who knows?
"In 30 years, you'll see. This will be the sport," master inventor Dean Kamen said. He was watching just such a high-tech competition in New York the other day, having spent the previous two days jetting to identical games in San Jose, Chicago and Kansas City. In all, 1,800 robotics teams compete all around the world. "Gazelles run faster," said Kamen. "Elephants are heavier than our heavyweights. This is the sport for humans."
Naturally Kamen has high hopes for the sport. He invented it. He also invented the Segway, the stent and the first portable insulin pump. But cheering on these FIRST Robotics competitions, as they are called, is his priority now, and it's hard to imagine a higher calling. Not only does America need to nurture a new generation of engineers, but plenty of high school students need the nurturing only a robot or robotics team can provide.
"My situation got messed up," one of the New York competitors, 16-year-old Jonathan Alarcon, said at the regionals Kamen was watching. Alarcon joined Brooklyn's Westinghouse High's team as a freshman for one reason only: His family was living in a homeless shelter. "I didn't really like it," he said. "So I would spend as much time away as I could."
When he found out that the robotics team stayed at school till 11 p.m. (robot kids are dedicated), he signed right up. In fact, he said, "I forged my mother's signature."
Was she upset?
He smiled. "Now she's very proud."
Well, she should be. Last year his school, formerly devoted to vocational education, made it to the national championships in Atlanta. This required some serious fund raising. "One student sold 4,000 candy bars," said the team's coach, Nadav Zeimer.
All of his students looked equally pumped as they prepared to send their robot into battle. One young man was keyboarding frantically as another checked the robot's battery. All around them, teams from another 36 schools, public and private, elite and ailing, were doing the same thing: preparing for the moment their robots would face their rivals in a two-minute, 15-second battle.
For the first 15 seconds, the robots are "autonomous" that is, they must move on their own. After that they are in the hands of a human with a joystick who must try to concentrate as fans scream and celebrate every lurch of the R2D2s below.
Up in the stands, the Westinghouse fans began a deafening cheer for their team as the robot rolled out into the arena. Mothers beamed. Younger siblings waved pom-poms. The team's mentors held their breath.
"We have a basketball team and other teams, but we are the glue that keeps the school together," said Alarcon, whose family has since found permanent housing.
"We're the hot glue," said his team member, Akeem Cummings, who'd been getting into trouble before discovering robots.
"People chant for us," noted a third team member, Jeremy Joseph.
They sure do. That's exactly what they were doing wildly, deafeningly, take that, Final Four! as the team's robot swung out its mechanical arm. Triumphantly, it lifted up a life preserver and proceeded to save about 15 young people's lives.
By the way, it also proceeded to win. It beat out all the fancy private schools. But as Kamen likes to say about the robotics competition: Everyone who gets involved wins.