From Robots to Summer Blockbusters, Alumni College Amuses and Inspires

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When the spring semester wrapped up early this May, the rush of relief through the student body was palpable—the same rush that always accompanies the easing of academic stress. But after a month or two, the tug to be engaged and stimulated begins to set in.

UT’s annual Alumni College caters to Longhorns who already have their degrees but are hungry to keep learning. This year, the three-day intensive lecture series , which was held June 17-20, spanned a variety of subjects: The university’s top professors guided alumni in everything from the science of behavior to the latest cancer research and Shakespearean costume design.

Luis Sentis, director of UT’s Human Centered Robotics Laboratory, led “Robotics: It’s Not Science Fiction Anymore” in the Alumni Center’s sunny Connally Ballroom. The lecture had enough diagrams and acronyms to satisfy science geeks but was grounded in real-world application talking points.

Sentis said that a few years ago domestic assistance robots, dexterous exoskeleton robots for loading weaponry and other dangerous tasks, and robots that help model human movements for better medical procedures would have seemed far-fetched, but now these ambitious projects are well underway.

The audience came alive when Sentis pressed the “on” switch for Dreamer, a female robot with big eyes, a button nose, and red hair, who blinked and waved to the crowd. “We didn’t want her to look like the Terminator,” Sentis joked. “We wanted to give her a sense of smarts and confidence, to be appealing and non-creepy.”

The talk then turned to the philosophy of “the uncanny valley,” an idea that goes back to Sigmund Freud. “If robots move too much like humans, you’ll feel creeped out,” he explained. “So we looked to cartoons, where facial features and movements are pleasantly abstracted.”

Sentis confessed that his wife’s facial features may have come into play in the making of Dreamer. “It’s not every day that a man has the opportunity to make a model of his wife in robot form.”

When Sentis invited a few members of the audience to come up and shake Dreamer’s hand, the robot held her hand out for a gentle shake. But there were a few technical problems. At one point, Dreamer inexplicably hung her head. “Don’t be depressed!” cooed Sentis. “It’s not so bad!”

These blips foreshadowed his remarks about the challenges still faced in robotics: safety concerns, lack of robot intelligence, and mobility. Additionally, he said, “Those in the robotics field have to be mindful of whether robots will create or displace jobs.”

The Alumni College lectures weren’t all hard science. Radio-film-television professor Charles Ramírez Berg gave a riveting talk on basic film analysis in “How to Read Film.”

“Film is a language system, using images to tell a story,” he began. Using clips of blockbusters like The Pirates of the Caribbean, The Sixth Sense, and Inception, Ramírez Berg showed how shots convey emotion while camera angles indicate a character’s power. “A low-angle shot gives the character agency,” he pointed out. “A high-angle shot takes it away.” One of the great high-angle shots of all time, according to Ramírez Berg, is the crane shot from High Noon. In the clip, Gary Cooper’s figure shrinks to an impossibly tiny speck as the camera pans out. “It doesn’t look too good for Gary Cooper, does it?” he joked.

A discussion on dramatic structure gave way to the subject of theme and how film analysis can pay off for the average moviegoer. “How can you apply this to your own life?” Ramírez Berge asked. “Figure out who’s the protagonist. It’s not always the actor who got paid the most money. It’s about whose decisions are structuring the story.”

He said this kind of analysis can yield surprising results. “If you look closely at Pirates of the Caribbean, you’ll see that it’s not Jack Sparrow making the decisions, but Elizabeth. What do you know: This summer blockbuster has a female protagonist.”

The talk had charged the Connally Ballroom air with the electricity of stirred thoughts, and there were many more lectures on the way. “We have a very high return rate,” shared Programs Coordinator Jessica Laderberg. “One alumna has been to every last lecture in the past 30 years.” Laderberg pointed out another alum in the audience, a gentleman who, at 99 years old, has been attending Alumni College for years—proving that it’s never too late to stop learning.

Photo by Anna Donlan.

 

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