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Archive for March, 2014

Exploring The World Of Robots

I first came across “Exploring The World Of Robots” when my brother got a copy of it for Christmas at some point in the early 1980s, and we both loved it very hard indeed. The reason we loved it is simple. It was crammed full of facts about our marvellous robotic utopian future that was quite definitely coming up in just a few short years.

Seriously; this book made all kinds of promises. In the very near future, it alleged, we would all have robots to do boring tasks we humans didn’t want to both with, like the housework and building toy cars and so on. Fake-people robots would replace the always-hard-to-come-by sick people that medical students traditionally learn on, which would somehow make learning medicine a more effective process. (Somehow.) Strap-on robot exo-skeletons would give us superhuman strength, allowing us to lift one-tonne weights with ease. Robots would even come to church (I swear, I am not making this up) and tell Bible stories.

And my brother and I believed all of this, because 1) we were kids and didn’t know any better and 2) that was what the book said, damn it! It was the early eighties! The printed word had value and meaning! What did we have to believe in if we couldn’t believe what we read in books?

I know I use this picture of a cat quite a lot, but I really really like the expression on its face.

I use this picture of a cat quite a lot, but I really really like the expression on its face. It’s endlessly useful.

So: we both spent a good four or five years wondering when our Housework Robot would be delivered and when we could expect to get a giant robot exo-skeleton in our Christmas stockings. After a while, we realised it wasn’t going to happen, and forgot about it. Then a few weeks ago, my brother sent me a copy of this book in the post, with a note that read, “THIS ENTIRE BOOK IS COMPOSED OF LIES AND WE BELIEVED EVERY WORD OF IT”.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Here’s the first page:

Maid Without Tears

Maid WIthout Tears Head

Let’s ignore all the strange and terrible questions raised by this strange and terrible illustration. Let’s ignore the troubling implications of the name “Maid Without Tears”, and its suggestion that most domestic workers spend their time sobbing over how awful their lives are. Let’s not pause to speculate on why this robot is unquestionably female, or why you can take its clothes off. Let’s not ask ourselves why its skin is purple and its clothes consist of moon boots, a mini-dress and a bathing-cap. Let’s even skip over the mysterious fact that its god-damn head comes off for no apparent reason. No; the really important thing to focus on here is why we’re looking at an illustration.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s a place for illustrations in fact-based books for children. Some things, like intestines and childbirth and dinosaurs and so on, are just inherently better when presented as drawings. But this isn’t intestines or childbirth or dinosaurs. This – the author assures us – is an actual robot that actually exists and is going to be on the market very soon. Surely if you were a robotics expert and you’d built such a thing, you wouldn’t be shy about being photographed?

"Maid Without Tears" also available in black, for added racially objectionable overtones.

“Maid Without Tears” also available in black, for added racially objectionable overtones.

Why is there no photograph? BECAUSE THERE NEVER WAS A BLOODY MAID WITHOUT TEARS ROBOT, that’s why. A quick glance at the Maid Without Tears clearly reveals that she(?) was a recycled version of the Miss Honeywell Illusion from the late 1960s, as documented by the brilliant blog Paleofuture.

Check out the date. Miss Honeywell made her fraudulent debut in 1968, and was apparently ridiculously unconvincing even at the time. The Piccolo Book of Outrageous Robotic Lies was published in 1978. That means that, a whole decade later, a professional writer for a well-respected publisher happened across a picture of a woman dressed in a robot suit, thought, “Yeah, that sounds plausible”, did zero further research, briefed some hapless artist to draw a picture of a scientist decapitating a robot and putting his hand inside her dress, then put it in a book for children and presented it as true.

Here’s another snippet of glorious mendacity:

Man in giant robot

“Inside this robot is a man.” Well, okay, if you say so. “When he moves his arms, the robot’s arms move too.” Wait, what now? We had this technology back in 1978? Are you absolutely sure about that? Because I kind of thought this was something we were only just getting to grips with recently. “[The robot] can pour medicine into a spoon, without spilling a drop.”

Seriously? Back in the late 1970s, someone had already built a robot with the same dexterity as a person? A robot that was controlled, not by joysticks or repetitive programming, but by the individual and idiosyncratic movements of an actual human hand? So where did this marvel of technology disappear to, then? Did we just leave it behind the sofa and forget about it?

Moving on:

Exoskeleton

Yes, you’re seeing that right; that’s a robotic exoskeleton, giving a puny human the power to lift a 1000kg weight with ease. Actually, I think I remember something like that. I think it came to market some time round about 1986? Some sort of gigantic loader thing, with arms, that gave you the power to lift really heavy stuff?

Oh wait, hang on a minute –

Ripley exoskeleton

By the way, later on in the book we get another look at the exoskeleton concept. The writer is so confident that this one is, like, for reals and stuff, that he even provides a rare reference – the Hardiman 1. Confusingly, he’s overlaid his Hardiman 1 picture onto a shot of Robbie the Bible-story-reading Church Robot, but that’s okay. I think we’d all be disappointed if I didn’t feature at least a little glimpse at the robot that liberated the Sunday School teachers of the world from their bonds of servitude:

I'll admit it: if I'd heard bible stories from the mouth of a massive yellow robot, I'd probably be a bit less dismissive of the whole organised-religion thing.

I’ll admit it: if I’d heard bible stories from the mouth of a massive yellow robot, I’d probably be a bit less dismissive of the whole organised-religion thing.

This one must be real, right? I mean, it’s got a name and everything! Wrong. The Hardiman 1 was apparently a total failure, with any attempt to use the full exoskeleton causing “violent uncontrolled motion”, which was so dangerous that “the exoskeleton was never turned on with a person inside”. (Anyone else think that was a missed opportunity?) The Hardiman inventors finally managed to make a single-armed version that would lift 340kg, but as the whole thing weighed more than double that, the Hardiman was given up as a bad job.

I found that out on Wikipedia, by the way. Remember this for later.

The really sneaky thing about this book is that not everything in it is a lie. Instead it contains a seductive blend of indubitable truths (there really were cruise missiles and chess-playing computers), half-truths (“Danger, Will Robinson…my Hardiman hooks are flailing wildly”) and sheer fantasy (Maid Without feckin’ Tears? We’re only just invented the Roomba! And Roombas are really crap!). There’s no distinction made between these three wildly differing types of information. Every single robot in this book is presented as a done deal, a real piece of kit, a thing you can buy right now.

Here’s why I find this culturally interesting; this book is thirty-six years old. That means this book (like me) is officially older than the web. It’s a relic of the golden age, when we all got our facts from reputable sources. Back then, information was treated properly. We learned from real books, written by professionally-trained researchers working to highly maintained standards, who would never (to pick a random example) cheerfully recycle a ridiculously transparent marketing stunt from a previous decade and present it as an apparent scientific breakthrough in the field of robotics.

Can you tell yet how completely pissed off I am that I still have to do my own hoovering?

Can you tell yet how completely pissed off I am that I still have to do my own hoovering?

Remember this, kids. This is a book, from a traditional publisher with a reputation for quality, written by a professional writer, presented as scientific truth and sold to children. And last week my brother and I debunked it in under an hour, using this apparent snake-pit of lies we like to call the Internet. Remember this the next time someone of my generation or above starts going on about how much better it was when information was properly controlled, and gets all sniffy about Wikipedia.

Of course the internet is also full of poorly-researched lies presented as gospel truth, because it’s in the nature of human beings to present poorly-researched lies as gospel truth from time to time. But I think what I’m saying here is: I bet my kids won’t spend bloody years of their childhood waiting around those purple-skinned cleaning robots to finally turn up at all good retailers.

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