Danger Will Robinson! National Museum robot is a really poor idea

DangerWillRobinsonStudents will be able to steer a robot around the National Museum from the comfort of their own classroom according to the egregious decisions Communications Minster, Stephen Conroy. Conroy is reported as saying that this initiative is world-leading, beyond cutting edge. Well actually it is not – it’s an expensive and poorly thought-out marketing extravaganza.

Let’s start with the fact that this isn’t a robot. It’s a remote-controlled car with a camera on top. To be a robot the thing needs to be able to work automatically, by itself. (I’m being slightly unfair as the machine does have the capacity to avoid objects in its path; but please this is a rant.)

Then let’s move on to the fact that it’s a remote-controlled car that took a gob-smacking, staggering $3.5 million to create. For goodness sake, you could have funded some high school students to create this thing for less money and more educational outcome. Think how many students could have undertaken robotics for that much money! Or, in another way of looking at the issue, it’s about the same amount of money the government currently spends actually subsidising real visits to Canberra on school excursions. And let’s not forget the fact you can buy off-the-shelf telepresence robots for under $10,000.

Finally there’s the underlying core idea. This is the laudable idea that this will give remote students access to museum resources they could not afford to visit. I applaud giving students access to educational materials. But wouldn’t it be better to simply digitise the collection and create virtual walk-throughs that are pertinent to what the students are learning? All without issues of bad camera angles, awkward lighting, people standing in the way and so on. Sure the ‘robot’ may sound cooler, but it’s inherently physically limiting. A virtual collection could be browsed by hundreds of schools simultaneously, rather that one class viewing through a camera being driven about.

Not only that, but the actual museum is designed for real people to interact with. So the telepresent students will get a great, frustrating view of the interactive elements. Look but no touching. Surely, surely a fully interactive virtual exhibition would be more fun, more engaging, more educational.

The only conclusion I can draw from all of this is that bunging the word robot into the title makes the whole venture so sexy that it could attract funding and traction. The Minister’s gushing idea that this is beyond cutting-edge certainly makes it seem as if the developers put their finger right on the marketing pulse.

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