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Want to race robots?

Giant steps in new technology are giving us new ways of interacting with machines and robotics, and now, we’re just in the first forays of introducing our electronic brethren to the age-old idea of athletic competition.

Boston-area residents got their chance at one such experiment, where an organization called VecnaCares held a “human and robot 5K” at Alewife Station, 36 Cambridge Park Dr.

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People and robots paid up to $35 each to participate in racing events, with a post-race party and an awards ceremony and raffle afterwards. Billed as a “family-friendly 5K race for individuals, families and teams,” this competition was the brainchild of a non-profit helping to improve health care and quality of life in American communities with adaptive technology.

Deborah Theobald is Co-Founder and Executive Director at VecnaCares.

“Our vision is to bring people and technology together for health,” Theobald said April 28, “And how better to do that than with a really exciting, growing technology like robots, and a really accessible event like a 5K?”

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Although the name of the event conjures visions of cyborgian machines smoothly striding alongside human runners, in actuality, the people and the bots ran entirely separate courses. Human participants ran a 5k, where the robots went about 50 meters to a “water stop” and back. Theobald said about 200 people turned up, with about 20 robots competing.

But, Theobald added, the event wasn’t just about Olympic-style competition or brute endurance. It was also about fun.

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“We had Jimmy Tingle and Miss Massachusetts to emcee the event,” Theobald said, “And they were a riot.  One person dressed as a robot in a cardboard box and came in third overall in the Human 5K. We also had a lot of really fun learning activities, like a robot petting zoo for some hands-on robotic exploration for the little ones, and WPI and iRobot showing off their latest robot applications.”

Although the race bots didn’t run at human speed, some of them demonstrated some pretty advanced designs. Robots even grabbed a cup of confetti at the mid-point of their trek, to take back to the starting line. There were complicated-looking, military style “tankbots,” curiously painted character-type bots, and some that looked a little bit like a Roomba.

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So machines aren’t running the Boston marathon yet, but looking at the array of mechanical challengers who came out to the 5k race, you have to consider how long it will be before some chip-built versions of ourselves are jogging alongside us in the morning, taking laps with training athletes, or even spotting us at the gym…? Looking at the exponential evolution of robotics, it seems clear that at one of these events not too far down the road, when the “big race” flag comes down, the bots won’t be on the sidelines anymore.

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