So you can get to level four on Tomb Raider - but do you know how it works?

January 5, 2001

British children love computer games, but they should also be learning to understand the technologies that drive them.

Computers are almost ubiquitous: cars, mobile phones and even toasters are running software. Desktop computers have become consumer items: 40 per cent of households have an internet connection. Toys, from games consoles through Tamagochi to Furbys and the Sony Aibo robotic dog, rely on cheap, powerful computing. Yet it turns out that fewer and fewer students joining our computer science degree programme have anything but the sketchiest idea of the details of computer organisation and design. Should we care? And if so, what remedy might there be?

To be fair, every generation seems to bemoan the deskilling of students. No doubt to the disgust of our tutors, few of my fellow undergraduates knew how to design with valves, but valves were almost completely obsolete by then so perhaps we should not be too concerned. Today, though, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that teenagers are mainly passive consumers of technology rather than active investigators and designers. Newsagents' racks once supported half-a-dozen home electronics titles. Now the one or two remaining are hard to find among a wall of consumer computing magazines that focus on reviewing products rather than explaining how computer programs are written and how the hardware works. The computer games market is of comparable size to the music industry and that represents a lot of gaming hours: somehow we need to harness a portion of the excitement that technology generates and encourage creativity as well as pure fun.

Part of the problem is that computers are no longer simple. Layers of application and system software sit between the computer user and the hardware. During the first home computer boom in the late 1970s and early 1980s, simple machines such as the BBC Micro and Sinclair Spectrum pretty much forced users to learn about their detailed operation if they were to be anything more than expensive paperweights. In retrospect, this period looks like a golden age for computing teaching at tertiary level - as many as half of our intake were experienced programmers. The computing magazines of the day were filled with articles on programming, and students understood the basic processes of sequencing, looping and selection that underpin any control system.

These days, the technical expertise of undergraduates starting in computer science often centres on configuration of PCs: few of them have written a program although many can tweak aspects of their system's operation and, of course, they know how to win at games.

Does any of this matter? Well of course it does: if manufactured products are going to be computer-based and our teenagers' idea of engineering creativity is limited to picking the colour of their i-MAC then we had better watch out.

The good news is that there are encouraging signs of re-skilling occurring at primary, secondary and university levels. The enthusiasm is being generated by popular interest in robots, and skills are being taught through the design and control of robotic devices. The irony of this situation should not be overlooked: in literature, robots are almost always viewed as agents of doom. In practice, they turn out to be a way into an increasingly complex technology that fires student imaginations.

Primary school children are introduced to robotic devices at key stages 1 and 2 through the control of floor-running turtles and simple descriptions of how they work. For older children, Lego has commercialised work done at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and produced the Lego Mindstorms robotics kits (see www.lego.com/robotics), which include an intelligent brick that responds to heat, touch, light and rotation sensors and can drive lamps and motors. There is even a Mindstorms camera system available, which gives children an introduction to image processing. Then we have the social phenomenon that is Robot Wars, a television contest in which machines battle each other in an arena, spurred on by a baying crowd. The programme has among the highest ratings on BBC2 and this year received hundreds of entries, each representing an enormous number of hours of construction work.

The truth is that Robot Wars makes some professionals wince because the "robots" are really only radio-controlled cars on steroids: an operator "drives" the robot and is in complete control of its actions. A real robot should have autonomous capability and be able to cope with an environment without human intervention. In addition, the aura around Robot Wars is militaristic and aggressive, which hardly helps overcome notions of computers as "boys' toys", although in my experience the programme is as popular with girls as with boys. One cannot question the programme's success in raising the profile of home constructors and control generally: the shops this Christmas were full of Robot Wars toys and a pop single was even released.

How can this enthusiasm be tapped? The United Kingdom does not have a happy record in this respect. The doyen of true robotic competitions is the Micromouse maze-running challenge that was first run in the United States in the late 1970s. Small autonomous robot "mice" are released into a maze that they must explore. Once they have learnt to navigate the course, they perform timed runs from the start to the target and the fastest wins. The competition rules were modified by John Billingsley in the UK so as to increase the challenge and this version ran under the auspices of the Institution of Electrical Engineers until 1999. The UK version has also been taken up by Pacific Rim universities and there are thriving competitions in Japan, Korea and the US. UK involvement has remained rather static, with almost no university involvement. This is sad because the challenge is pitched at exactly the right level for final-year undergraduate projects: a good mouse requires a synthesis of computing, electronics and mechanical skills that are rarely combined in a traditional university curriculum. The competitive element is an important motivation: winners receive a much sought after brass cheese.

At Royal Holloway, we took over the organisation of the Micromouse competition from the IEE and have been building up a programme of competitions, summer schools and TV coverage to expand the scope of the event. The TV production company behind Robot Wars has created a new programme called Technogames ( www.technogames.net ) in which robots compete in Olympics-style events such as swimming, the high jump and sprint races. The Micromouse event has been filmed for Technogames , and we hope that viewers will understand that our robots are not just remote-controlled devices: the mice really do work on their own. We have featured devices based on the Lego Mindstorms kit and are publishing the design to encourage entry-level competitors. We have had superb support from the existing Micromouse community and hope to raise their profile among the public and university groups.

This is all pretty small beer, though. The Japanese, famously, are fascinated by technology. They have an international competition called RoboFesta ( www.robofesta-europe.org ) that includes some 30 different events ranging from Micromouse to robot football, and even Sumo wrestling. The scale is impressive: in 2001 the organisers anticipate about 1,700 robot participants and up to 700,000 spectators during week-long events organised in five cities. There are plans to bring RoboFesta to Europe in 2004 and to take some UK participants to Japan next year. It is clear that we are missing a wonderful opportunity to draw our students and youngsters into creative use of a technology that is fit for more than just war games.

Adrian Johnstone lectures in computing at Royal Holloway, University of London, and runs the UK Micromouse competition ( micromouse.cs.rhul.ac.uk ).

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