DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Seeking to bolster its image as a forward-looking metropolis, Dubai hosted the largest-ever international robotics contest this week, challenging young people from 190 countries to find solutions to global ocean pollution.
Event organizers say their selection of Dubai as host reflects a vote of confidence that this oil-rich Emirati sheikhdom can be a global hub for innovation. They also expressed hope that bringing together tomorrow’s scientists and engineers will help develop technologies to solve the world’s most pressing issues, particularly those related to the environment.
Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST Global Challenge, said the Middle East represents a part of the world where “the adults have not learned how to play nice with each other” and it was up to young people to fix humanity’s self-inflicted wounds.
“We are in an accelerating race toward catastrophe, whether it’s global warning, melting of the (polar ice) caps, bird flu, terrorism — you name it, we’re worried about it. The solution to most of the world’s grand challenges depends on better technologies than we have today,” he said.
The unofficial “Robotics Olympics” seeks to encourage young people to pursue subjects known as STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Teams of four to five students, aged 14-18, each received a kit of rods, wheels, wires and other raw materials with which to assemble their roving robots. Their task: Collect orange balls of various sizes from a playing field, which represented human-created pollutants in the ocean. Some devised robots for scooping, while others snatched up and fired the balls through the air into the receptacles.
The teams then formed “alliances,” each with up to four nations, to battle their way to the final round. Overall, 1,500 students took part.
A team captained by Belarus, and including Syrian refugees, eventually won the gold medal, edging out a team captained by Israel in a dramatic final match. But organizers stressed a message of unity, not conflict.
“The kids get it. To them this isn’t a competition; this is a ‘coop-etition.’ This is a celebration of technology,” said Kamen.