Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds
88 Years of Show Robots
May 19, 2016Posted by on
The typical way most people have experienced a “robot” is at a trade show or other meeting. The showboat robot’s purpose is to perform as a mechanical entertainment, always remote-controlled for more humanlike operation. The end result is a public that thinks humanoid Robots That Jump are far closer to reality than they really are.
My best example in the past has been Elektro, a showbot developed for the 1939 World’s Fair.
While this robot has a few interesting senses (for example, it can detect a lit cigarette and smoke) it is essentially a remote-controlled metal puppet, with a few automatic routines.
But now, the grandaddy of all showbots (if you don’t count the imaginary Boilerplate), Eric, a circa 1928 year robot, is about to be re-created.
The thing that’s cool about Eric is that there is some real mechanical agility in its behavior. Unlike the relatively stiff Elektro, Eric can move is a vaguely human way (though he can’t walk). He was remote via a wireless connection, but could also respond to humans uttering numbers if they were careful speaking. In other words, an early version of speech recognition! From the Cybernetic Zoo:
It appears that Richards deployed two methods of control. One was the use of remote wireless where a hidden person was able to answer the questions asked…
Later, the creators even considered putting in light-sensitive cells to act as ‘eyes’ – which was part of Elektro in the next decade.
Another cool thing about Eric is that he has “R.U.R.” on his chest – short for Rossum’s Universal Robots. This in turn comes from the 1921 stage play by Czech writer Karel Čapek which has the best early example of the notion that (1) We will create robots, (2) They will become superior to us, and (3) They will overthrow us and establish a new robot Eden. Isaac Asimov clearly borrowed this concept for his positronic robots, with a company called US Robots and Mechanical Men featuring prominently in his I, Robot series.
Now, in reality, R.U.R. robots were actually “constructed” humanoids with some machine parts mixed with biology. A cell culture vat or 3D printer (like the classic 5th Element scene) was used to create them. So, they weren’t cold steel, at least in their later versions. In the play, they they look more like genetic clones, ultimately develop advanced human emotions, and pass the final test for robo-worthyness to succeed humanity.
But everyone at the time seemed to understand devices like Eric as an early version or an R.U.R. androids. The Ridley Scott movie Bladerunner (taken in turn from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) features these kind of “manufactured” humanlike robots, as does his Alien series (skin coloring on the androids similar to R.U.R. play makeup).
And, if you look at the matte behind Elektro, you see a goddess? at the upper right, wearing a clear plastic dress strangely similar to one worn by Zhora the android in Bladerunner:
(check in about 30 seconds)
The appearance of R.U.R. on Eric shows how widespread the belief was that robots were “just around the corner” nearly a century ago. Today, with major advances in technology, robots are still “just around the corner”.
So, have we really progressed? We have sophisticated industrial robots, but they are more like the parts of an animal, or a cell enzyme in complexity. The first industrial robots date from 1801 with the Jacquard Loom...
And some of our robots can walk, which took Honda hundreds of millions of dollars.
(interestingly, Honda hasn’t realized that Flash is Dead – still forms the Ui on their website.
And…we have big electric puppets which, if anything are even less of a true robot than Eric was. The tech is better, for Robothespian (another U.K. showbot), but the fakery is greater.
…But…they’re not Robots that Jump.
Like Electro and Eric, modern robots pretend to think…to keep alive the techno-religion concept that the robot age, first told of in R.U.R., is upon us.