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Feature

A Scout robot

Don't be fooled by its pint-sized appearance. The Scout robot, recognized in the Popular Science report, can help find kidnappers hiding in a house.

U figures in top-tech-city ranking for Minneapolis

By Deane Morrison

Published on February 22, 2005

Move over, Silicon Valley. Popular Science magazine has named Minneapolis the country's "Top Tech City." Its current issue describes wonders like the LRT, the skyways, and Mayor Rybak's Prius, crowning its coverage with sketches of the University of Minnesota's Digital Technology Center (DTC) and Center for Distributed Robotics. Guided by DTC director Andrew Odlyzko, Popular Science reporter Matthew Power visited campus last fall and got a firsthand look at how interdisciplinary research and cooperation between the U and industry and between engineering and computer science has borne fruit, and how students are getting what they need to succeed in a digital society. Power was fascinated by mathematician Odlyzko's research on the psychological effects of railroads in the 19th century and the parallels to the rise of the Internet, which Power calls "our own century's 'disruptive technology.'" Despite the multiple interdisciplinary and collaborative projects all around--such as the University-Mayo Clinic partnership--Odlyzko opined that venture capital for tech start-ups still goes disproportionately to Silicon Valley and Boston's Route 128. Also receiving kudos was the U's Center for Distributed Robotics team, led by computer science and engineering professor Nikolao Papanikolopoulos, for its development of Scout robots--soda-can-sized search-and-surveillance robots that can be used to find victims buried in a collapsed building or kidnappers hiding in a house. The article also mentions another of the center's projects-the design of a smart video-monitoring system to detect unattended packages in public spaces and other suspicious situations. Being developed with federal Homeland Security funding, the system will get a test at the Omaha airport, said Maria Gini, another robotics expert and colleague of Papanikolopoulos, in an interview. Power took a walk with a virtual-reality headset in Walter Library, and, impressed with the research, announced that "the functional Holodeck has not yet arrived." (For you non-science fiction fans, the Holodeck--based on the word "hologram," or 3-D image--was a place on the starship Enterprise where crew members could experience fantasies as if they were real. Yes, yes, even those fantasies.) Later, Power watched astronomy professor and Laboratory for Computational Science and Engineering director Paul Woodward demonstrate his minutely detailed 3-D contractions of the internal workings of stars. Power also got a glimpse of a "Web usability lab," in which the patterns of a user's Web navigation are monitored. The data will be used to design more efficient and user-friendly Web pages. Power ended his visit with a trip to--where else--the Mall of America, where he admired lo-tech features like the absence of a heating system for the vast indoor space and the use of ladybugs to keep the atrium's 400 trees pest-free. To him, the mall is the Twin Cities' mutually conjoined triplet, a self-contained city on their periphery. "It's this mall that truly replicates the domed City of the Future I had sketched as a kid," Power writes. "... it is the final triumph of techno-kitsch." After his sojourn at the mall, Power boarded the LTR to return to Minneapolis, a city he felt much more richly deserved the City of the Future crown. But given his favorable reviews, could an article on the U of M--the university of the future--be far behind?