SF State Director Mixes Alcohol and Robotics
February 20, 2007 12:26 AM
David Calkins’ bartending robot Chapek now lies in disassembled shambles amid the electronic gadgets and robot body parts that clutter his office. The only remaining recognizable feature is the word "robogames" emblazoned, in capital letters, across the android’s chest.
The former Chapek, a robot bust with a tin, man-like head, red light-emitting diode eyes and an almost friendly gaping hole of a mouth, is nowhere to be seen. Before Chapek was reduced to an inanimate piece of machinery, he poured alcoholic drinks while flirting with those who dared to place an order.
“Hey, you ever date a robot?” was one of Chapek’s signature phrases before the inevitability of too much alcohol obliterated his ability to speak.
“Vodka spilled on his speech processor and it blew up,” said Calkins, director of the SF State engineering and design center. “Alcohol doesn’t just impair speech in humans.”
For the past two years, Calkins has taken Chapek to the Roboexotica Festival, a bartending robot convention, in Vienna, Austria.
Roughly 30 robots from all over the globe took part in last year’s festivities. At the Annual Cocktail Robot Awards the androids are entered into seven categories, including mixing and serving drinks, lighting cigarettes and speaking.
"Chapek won the award for best catch-all robot last year," said Calkins. "[For being] the only full human-like robot."
"But they try to divide the prizes so everybody wins eventually," he added.
While Chapek is an interesting venture into the microcosm of cocktail robotics, Calkins’ android engineering interests extend further. Aside from acting as the center’s director, Calkins teaches classes on robotics and computer engineering. He is also president of the San Francisco Robotics Society of America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the exchange of information about robotics.
One need only set foot in this director’s office to get a sense of the dominant role robotics plays in his life.
Bedecked in floor to ceiling robot décor, the small room in the Science building has the appearance of an exploded erector set. A life-size, operable R2-D2 that stands immobile at the far end of the room appears to be an exact replica of the astromech droid featured in the "Star Wars" films.
While Calkins sits behind an informal desk, with his silent, male teacher’s assistant, whom he refers to as “the new girl,” seated to his left, it is clear that the director is in demand. He takes a call from the British Daily Telegraph newspaper and gives a fast-paced interview interspersed with personal anecdotes that all seem to involve a robot of some sort.
Calkins relays how he helped his mother cope with the emotional loss of a cat by purchasing her a robotic dog.
Despite being a prominent figure in the robotics community, Calkins has none of the self-important airs one might expect.
“The initial publicity paved the way for more recognition,” said Calkins. “There are a lot of far more brilliant roboticists than I who never get any press because they've never gotten any press."
"Although it certainly helps to show your stuff publicly," he added. "So whore yourselves to the man, kids!"
Calkins has starred in a Discovery Channel special, spoken as an expert for the History Channel and appeared as a recurring guest expert on robotics for Tech TV.
Although it is only six weeks in to the semester, Calkins has managed to captivate his students.
“When [Calkins] talks, you know it’s important,” said Jerald Burkes, 25, of his experience in Calkins’ introduction to computer engineering class. “I have to listen carefully so I don't miss anything."
Preparing Chapek is a lone effort that involves 72 hours of continuous labor.
"I put off working on him until the days right before [the convention]," said Calkins. "Similar to a student during finals week."
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