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Science
by Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty

BRAINLESS ROBOTS STROLL THE BEACH

 
WITH THIS column, we're changing our format. Rather than publishing long columns just twice a year, we'll be writing short columns for every issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. For the next few issues, we'll be discussing a topic that is near to the heart of every science fiction reader: the robot.

No need to discuss fictional robots—we are confident that you know them. We don't need to mention Asimov's robots governed by laws that are carefully scripted to protect humanity or Lester del Rey's Helen O'Loy (perhaps the first in a long line of robots destined to fall in love). You all know about Forbidden Planet's Robby the Robot, Star Trek's Data with his positronic brain (a term conceived by Asimov), R2-D2 and C-3PO of Star Wars, and Marvel's criminally insane sentient robot Ultron.

We're going to be focusing on robots that don't fit neatly into the boxes defined by science fiction. These are not mechanical people or even synthetic people. They aren't itching to dominate humanity. (No robot overlords here.) Nor are they likely to be humans' slaves, cheerfully doing our unpleasant chores.

We'll start with Paul's favorite—the Strandbeest. Paul works (and Pat used to work) at the Exploratorium, San Francisco's museum of science, art, and human perception. For the last few months, the Exploratorium has hosted a show about the Strandbeest, with several actual Beests on display and, occasionally, in action. Getting to know the Strandbeest has expanded our notion of what a robot can be.

Before we go further, take a look at one of Jansen's Strandbeests if you haven't seen one before. You'll find many videos online; we recommend this one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYGJ9jrbpvg

The Strandbeests are many-legged constructions made of PVC tubes and plastic soda bottles. They come in many sizes and varieties—their creator, artist Theo Jansen, has been busy for decades, creating herds of these mechanical creatures.

The Strandbeests, in all their varieties, march along sandy beaches, their many legs moving in a vaguely bug-like way that's not quite like any bug you've ever seen. Watching them, in real life or on video, it's easy to believe these are animals. They act like animals—moving purposefully, approaching the surf, then retreating from the rising water. A large Beest waves its head (or is that its tail?) as if catching a scent on the wind. Smaller ones gather in a group, plastic sails undulating in the breeze.

The Strandbeests react to their environment like living creatures, betraying every appearance of thought. Yet they use no electric power, no electronic logic. They are powered by the wind, using two different types of sails to take advantage of this power source.

Their undulating sails move like flags flapping in the breeze. With each back-and-forth movement, the sail pumps air into plastic two-liter bottles. (Yes, think soda bottles. This is low tech.) The pumps compress the air, storing energy. The air that's compressed in the soda bottles can push on pistons that move the Beest's legs to make it stroll along the beach. No electric power—it's entirely pneumatic.

A Strandbeest raises its other sail when it needs to move because water is coming up. With the help of this sail, the wind pushes the Strandbeest—but only in a downwind direction. To move in any other direction, the Strandbeest must use its stored wind energy. If the wind is blowing toward the water, a Strandbeest uses its stored energy to move against the wind, heading away from the water.

Put this all together and this contraption of PVC pipes and soda bottles is starting to sound a lot like a robot. The Strandbeest obtains energy from its environment and stores it. It uses that stored energy to move from place to place. It senses its environment and uses the information it gains to change its behavior.

But maybe, having been influenced by the good Doctor Asimov and many other sf writers, you're thinking, "But it doesn't have a brain!" How can it "decide" to move away from the water without some central processing unit—a positronic brain that collects its sensory data and manages its response?

A simple open-ended tube lets a Strandbeest sense water. If water plugs the tube, no air can enter. The lack of air triggers pneumatic logic gates that open certain air pressure tubes while closing others. These gates open the tubes that squirt air into pistons that push against the sand to start the Beest walking away from that water-plugged tube. No central processing unit needed!

We humans rely on our brains—so naturally we tend to imagine robots that work in the same way. As a science fiction writer, Pat is well aware of how robots have been used as a way to examine what it means to be human. But the Strandbeest suggests that it might be more interesting to use robots to think out of our neurocentric, human box. Maybe creations like the Strandbeest let us examine a greater question: What does it mean to be alive?

Theo Jansen regards the Strandbeests as a form of artificial life. He describes them as if they were animals that he invented. Versions that didn't work have become "extinct." He refers to the beach as their "natural habitat" where he would like them to be able to "live" freely.

The Strandbeest can't reproduce like a living thing. On the other hand, it has managed to cause another organism (that organism being Theo Jansen and others who have been inspired by him) to make copies of it. In that way, the Strandbeest is akin to a virus, which can't reproduce unless it invades a living cell and commandeers its genetic machinery. And scientists are still debating whether viruses are living entities.

Maybe we'd better stick to the simpler question: Is the Strandbeest a robot? Even though the word "robot" has been around since the 1920s, it has no standard definition. Generally, the word is defined by listing the characteristics every robot should have. Most definitions specify that a robot has to sense its environment and use the information it gains to follow instructions and perform some action. Some definitions also require that a robot have a way to power itself.

By those standards, the Strandbeest is a robot. Pat is intrigued by how inhuman a robot it is—and how that messes with science fictional robotic conventions. Thinking about the Strandbeest made us acutely aware that Asimov's laws of robotics are all about people. (For those who need a refresher course, the laws are: 1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2) A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. And the zeroth law, added later: A robot may not injure humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.)

For the Strandbeest, people are essentially irrelevant. It doesn't care about you—in the same way that a large, benign herbivore doesn't care about you. It might trample you by mistake, but it's not going to go out of its way to protect you or harm you.

In our future columns, we'll consider a few more robots—some of which, you'll be glad to hear, do care about you. In the meantime, we suggest you contemplate the possibilities offered by robots who do not want to be our overlords. They just don't care. It's a great thing to think about while going for a long walk on the beach.
 

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Paul Doherty works at The Exploratorium, San Francisco's museum of science, art, and human perception—where science and science fiction meet. For more on Paul's work and his latest adventures, visit www.exo.net/~pauld. Pat Murphy is a science educator, a science fiction writer, and occasionally a troublemaker. She works at Mystery Science, developing hands-on lessons for elementary school. You can learn more about what she's up to at www.brazenhussies.net/Murphy.
 

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