• Create BookmarkCreate Bookmark
  • Create Note or TagCreate Note or Tag
  • PrintPrint
Share this Page URL
Help

Introduction > I, Robot

I, Robot

I guess you could say that robots are in my bones. Wait, you can say that! In 2000, I had a total hip replacement. I am now part state-of-the-art, cobalt-chrome titanium with irradiated cross-linked polymers. Where HAL 9000, the robotic ship in 2001: A Space Odyssey, was fond of telling people that he was built in the H.A.L. Plant in Urbana, Illinois, I can boast that part of me was built at DePuy Industries of Indiana.

I was obsessed with robots long before I started sporting my own robot-like body parts. In fact, my first spanking was over robotics (back in the early ’60s when corporal punishment was all the rage). I was six years old. I’d been lusting after the latest Erector Set that was being heavily advertised for Christmas. As with all toy commercials, the one for this mechanical, motorized building set made it look far more sophisticated than it actually was. After sending my wish list off to Santa, I started fantasizing about the one thing I wanted to build most of all: a robot! My over-active imagination got the better of me, and by the time Christmas morning dawned, I was convinced that a full-blown humanoid companion would be mine within hours of ripping through the presents.

Opening up that Erector Set box was the first of many lifelong disappointments related to the fantastic perception of robots versus the far more sober reality. The Erector Set was cool all right, but it was little more than a few steel girders, some nuts and bolts, and a tiny wrench. It had one weak little motor (the infamous DC3) and barely enough parts to make a little crane, let alone a robot (or even a small model of one). I was so crestfallen that I couldn’t hide my disappointment. As I started to sob, my parents got understandably angry at my apparent ungratefulness.

Then the real trouble started. My cousin lived a few towns over and we went to visit him and his family for New Year’s Eve. Once he and I were alone, we started telling each other what we’d gotten for Christmas. In my enthusiasm (and probably my desire for one-upmanship), I suddenly found myself going with the fantasy of what I’d wanted rather than the reality of what I’d actually gotten. I told him I’d built this incredible robot that was now helping me out with chores around the house and was my new best friend. His excited response only egged me on and the tale became more and more fantastic. When I stopped to catch my breath, he dropped the bomb: “That’s great! I’ll see it next weekend when we come to visit your house!”

I knew right then that I was toast. I had no idea that his family had plans to visit, and even if I had, I’m not sure it would have stopped me from telling my Pinocchio-sized lies. We traveled home the next day, and in the car, I dedicated myself to figuring out a way of making my lie become true. I had a week to somehow magically transform that lowly little Erector Set (and any other toys I could cannibalize) into something that could at least pass for a facsimile of a robot. Of course, it didn’t take long, sitting there on our den floor, to realize that magic, the kind that transformed Pinocchio from sticks of wood and bits of string into a real boy, was the only thing that could come to my rescue. After an hour or so of mindlessly bolting pieces together, I gave up, put the set away, and began the countdown to my cousin’s fateful arrival. He came. He saw (no robot). He had a hissy fit, and I got a spanking (for lying).

Note

If you were a child of the ’50s and ’60s (or the ’10s, ’20s, ’30s, or ’40s, for that matter), and were the proud owner of an Erector Set, you’ll be happy to know that Erector is alive and well...at least in cyberspace. Erector World (www.erectorworld.com) has all sorts of material related to the mechanical building sets that launched the career aspirations of many an engineer. It has histories, galleries, and timelines. You can even buy refurbished antique building sets. The site also sells the “new” Erector Set, which is basically the French Meccano system being sold under the Erector name (it’s not compatible with old Erector parts, by the way). If you want to get real Erector Sets, they’re usually available (used) on eBay. And if you want to try your hand at incorporating Erector or other mechanical building components into your bots, check out the Mechanical Construction Set FAQ at Robotics.com (www.robotics.com/erector.txt).


This event has always stuck with me, not only because it was so embarrassing, and one of the few times that I got spanked, but because it was the exact point at which my lifelong fascination with robots began. I think (if I may stretch out here on the couch for a moment) that my continued interest in robotics has been partially an attempt at making the magic happen that I couldn’t make happen back then.

When my own son was six, we were watching a Felix the Cat cartoon that featured an evil scientist and his rampaging robot (one of the same episodes that I likely watched as a child). When the video was over, he said, “Hey dad, can we make a robot?” That was all the encouragement I needed. I figured that, in the long years between my first encounter with robots (at least of the daydream kind) and the early ’90s, we certainly must be a lot closer to the robot I’d desired when I was six. Within months, we had surrounded ourselves with robot kits, Radio Shack robot toys (gotta love that Super Armatron), books, building sets, and microcontrollers.

As we explored all of the robots that were available at that time, I quickly realized that reality was still not even close to catching up to my boyhood fantasies. Even today, some 40 years from that fateful Christmas morning, there’s still no robot companion kit to be found under the aluminum Christmas tree. Sure, today’s kids have AIBO, LEGO MINDSTORMS, B.I.O. Bugs, and other nifty bots and building sets that are light-years beyond any Erector Set, but your kids shouldn’t expect any of them to help make their beds or carry on a conversation about the freakish success of SpongeBob SquarePants. The robot I dreamt about, the one I was prepared to sell my soul to animate, is still generations away.

Note

When LEGO introduced its MINDSTORMS Robotics Invention System in 1998, I got a huge kick out of the first TV commercial. A kid is asked to clean up the dinner dishes. In response, his MINDSTORMS robot is seen bulldozing all of the tableware onto the floor, followed by a second LEGO bot with a gripper arm planting a vase of flowers on the newly cleared table. I loved the way that the commercial played upon the perennial fantasy of building a robot helper, while realistically depicting what such bots could actually do at that time.


I know that all of the preceding is about robotic dreams unrealized, but happily, this is far from the whole story. I’ve spent 40-some years (never you mind the hard number) tinkering on and off with robot tech, and every step has been a fascinating one. Like the ancient alchemists, who searched for the illusive Philosopher’s Stone—the element that would turn lead into gold—only to find that the transformative quest itself was the “gold” they sought (discovering modern chemistry in the process), my quest has also been extremely fulfilling. My son and I have built robots that draw, follow mazes, stir coffee, lift objects, play golf, send dirty dishes to the kitchen (though not very well), do light vacuuming (ditto), follow light, avoid light, navigate rooms, and much more. We’re both diehard computer geeks, but it is robotics that’s gotten us away from the sedentary computer desktop and allowed us to add some mechanical engineering, electronics, and rubber-meets-the-road problem solving to our skill sets. Robots are what happen when computers venture out into the real world.

Years ago, I had the good fortune to strike up an email conversation with pioneering musician, deep thinker, and multimedia artist Brian Eno. This was a time before the Web, when Apple’s HyperCard program was the cutting-edge hypermedia tool. We were talking about the future of hypermedia, networking, and computers in general. He told me how much he hated computers. He loved what they could do, but hated using them (he also complained about computer geeks having foul body odor and disagreeable skin conditions, but that’s another story). The thing he most objected to about computers was their nearly complete nonphysical nature. He was concerned about how increasing virtuality might affect our health, our social abilities, and our cultures. When I started to get more deeply into robotics with my son, I realized that it was at least a step in the direction of addressing Eno’s concerns.

Look at a group of school children working at computers, and then look at a group working with robots. It’s like night and day. Whereas computing is usually a solitary and physically passive activity, robot building in the classroom is very kinetic and usually collaborative. Kids are running back and forth, from the PC (where they’re designing or programming their bots) to the floor (where they’re building and testing them). There’s great excitement and a sense of wonder that you don’t see as much with solely computer-based projects.

Note

Okay, all you computer cowboys, don’t write letters to me about how wrong this assertion is. I know that computer-based design and programming can be extremely creative, exciting, and mentally kinetic. I’ve been there myself. But until you can show me that you’re burning real calories sitting at your desk and not forging a permanent butt-print on your task chair, my point stands.


My first fond memory of collaborating with my son on robot building is of him (at six), excitedly scooting around all over the floor in my home office watching, interacting with, and changing the pens on a drawing bot we’d just built out of LEGOs. The robot was tethered to our Mac by a serial computer cable, but I got this profound sense at that moment that I was witnessing the beginning of computers leaving the confines of the PC and leaking into everyday objects—a migration that’s now become so commonplace, it’s nearly invisible to most.

  • Creative Edge
  • Create BookmarkCreate Bookmark
  • Create Note or TagCreate Note or Tag
  • PrintPrint