For many humans, perhaps most, the term ‘robot’ brings to mind images from popular culture; a C-3PO, maybe, or, according to your age, a Metal Mickey (see video above) or Robby the Robot . Den of Geek has an entertaining Top 50 Robots and AI Computers in the movies if you need more choices. One by-product of this reliance on fiction to give us our visions of robotics is that many people forget that robots are, you know, REAL. Some anecdotal evidence: I once introduced one freind to another by pointing out that he built robots. The first friend expressed disbelief, stating her conviction that robots were the stuff of science-fiction, and the presence of a living, breathing roboticist before her would not dissuade her of that belief.
This is not an usual assumption. It’s easy to forget that we live in the 21st century, or, as I like to call it, THE FUTURE! Truth is, robots are everywhere nowadays, and their presence is only going to increase. This isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but in order to understand the rise of the machines and what it means for the human race, we first need to address some common assumptions about robots. As such, this here Part One of Robots! Robots! Robots! sets out to demonstrate that 1) robots are not from the future but have been with us since the Ancients; 2) contrary to film and television’s default depiction, most robots do not look like humans; and 3) robots are not going to kill us all (but humans using robots might do). Part Two discusses the social and economic implications of our robot world, while Part Three investigates the more radical Post/Human possibilities.
Let’s get started…
1. Robots are crazy future things from the future
Not quite. As stated above, we already live in the future and the robots are everywhere (more on that below and in Part Two). Not only are robots common, but they are also an old idea. Early robots, more commonly called automatons, can be found in ancient mythology, as in the mechanical servants of the Greek god Hephaestus, or the Golem of Jewish legend. Even in fiction the use of robots did not emerge fully formed in 20th Century science-fiction. Dig these impossible to resist examples of the “Mechanical Marvels of the Nineteenth Century“, for instance, which includes the Steam Man of the Prairies, a fictional robot from back in 1868.
But even outside of the great realm of ‘Story’, the truth is that robots have been with us since at least 400 BC when philosopher and mathematician Archytas of Tarentum built a wooden dove that could flap its wings and fly. Which brings us neatly to the second assumption.
2. Robots look like people
We have become used to humanoid robots in film and television, but this is just corporeal anthropomorphism. After all, while human beings are, as a rule, limited by their biology in terms of what form they take, robots are designed and built. Why limit the robotic form to a clumsy impersonation of the already clumsy human body? There are still attempts to mirror the human form of course, as seen in the impressive/amazing/utterly terrifying (delete according to taste) video below. But the import of these humanoid robots lies in their being good, old-fashioned ‘technological marvels’ rather than any real-world functions they might possess.
Many of the earliest robots replicated non-human forms such as doves, or Jacques de Vaucanson’s 1739 creation, Canard Digérateur, or Digesting Duck, an automaton in the form of a duck which appeared to eat grain, digest it and then defecate! Other highlights from the menagerie of automata might include the iron fly and artificial eagle of Johan Muller (1533) or John Dee’s flying, wooden beetle (1543). Contemporary roboticists are also turning to the animal kingdom. Spurred on by a 1989 paper by MIT AI Lab director Rodney Brooks entitled Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, roboticsts and AI researcher shifted their focus somewhat from simulating people to the creation of smaller, smarter and more useful robots. One reason for this, as Mark Ward points out, is that .
40 years of work has proved that the job of recreating any intelligence, let alone that of a human, is much harder than was first thought…Trying to make robots as smart as insects makes sense when you consider how rare humans are. People are numerous but make up only one out of approximately 4,000 species of mammals, and an even smaller fraction of the many millions of other species crammed on to the planet.
Outside of AI and the study of how intelligence emerges, non-human forms also provide a variety of more prosaic uses, such as carrying supplies, accessing buildings that have been bombed or hit by earthquakes or the collection of samples and data from areas inaccessible to human beings. Dante II, for instance, was designed to wander around the interior of Alaska’s Mount Spurr volcano, collecting volcanic gases, while TROV (Telepresence Remotely Operated Vehicle) is used to explore shipwrecks and other undersea environments.
Such needs have also been catered for by a variety of animal-like machines such as Boston Dynamics terrifying headless horse Big Dog and its sibling Little Dog, all the way across the animal kingdom to fish and insects. Let’s take a look at a trip to the robot zoo, shall we? Again, some (but not all) of these fall into the category of Mechanical Marvels rather than having an explicit function as yet.
And – similarly mirroring the insect world – a swarm of micro-bots:
Perhaps most non-human of all are modular robots. As can be seen in the videos below, while they resemble a snake in certain formations their ability to come apart and function as separate modules before recombining again resembles the activity of slime-mold rather than any vertebrate.
3. Robots will kill us all!
Most visions of the future that feature robots and AI don’t work particularly well for the humans involved. While the above myths of robots being humanoid or unrealistic fictions demonstrate how our thinking about robotics draws upon fictional representations as much (perhaps more) than actual science, it is also helpful to remember that the roots of science-fiction and horror are intertwined. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) remains a key modern myth of the technological age, and its merging of astounding scientific progress is mingled with a Gothic horror. The story of Frankenstein has become short-hand for science gone dangerously out of control, speaking to a primal fear about ‘playing God’. As such, its more common to the witness the dystopian vision of say, The Terminator, on screen than the poet Richard Brautigan’s vision of a future where we are “all watched over by machines of loving grace“. The problem of course, is not really to do with the robots at all, but their creators. Which is to say, us.
In Part Two of Robots! Robots! Robots! we will consider how the development of robotics has been, and remains, tied up with economic concerns, with the vast majority of robots existing in industrial settings. However, this intimate relationship with big business has utopian as well as dystopian possibilities. To end this first part on a downbeat note however, it must be acknowledged that the worlds of industry and the military are woven together. So while, as this post has demonstrated, many of the common assumptions about robots are generally incorrect, several of your worst fears about military death-machines are, alas, not far off the mark.
But don’t expect the killing blow to be delivered to you by a comfortingly humanoid murder-bot. The increased use of unmanned, remote controlled drones by the US and UK military points to the future of robotic warfare:
Or consider the video below of what can only be described as A NIGHTMARISH FLYING DEATH SPHERE. Though those are not the words used in the youtube decription for it:
US Missile Defense Agency video of the 2 December 2008 free-flight hover test of Lockheed Martin’s Multiple Kill Vehicle (MKV-L). The MKV is designed to allow a single interceptor to destroy a ballistic missile equipped with multiple warheads or countermeasures. In Lockheed’s design, a seeker-equipped carrier vehicle manoeuvres into the path of the ballistic missile then dispenses and guides small kill vehicles to their targets. In its first test, the MKV-L hovered for 20 seconds in a special facility at Edwards AFB, California, while recognizing and tracking a simulated target.
Seriously, that’s a real thing that someone built.
But wherever there is Thanatos there is always Eros. War may unfortunately be a driving force in technological developments but so too is sex; witness the £250 million a year sex toy industry for instance. These are technological devices we not only welcome into or homes but into our orifices.
And on that note we can close Part One with an image like something out of William S Burroughs; this video of Shiri, a robot bottom that responds to touch by twitching and tensing. I’ll refrain from passing comment on it while you let your fecund imaginations run wild.
Join me for Part Two (Let the machines do the work) where we move beyond floating death-spheres and ass-bots to consider the economic and societal implications of the robot future-present.