Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Robot carnival

You all know that I'm a big fan of robots. (If you didn't know that, then you do now.) Growing up as an introverted science fiction fan, robots were naturally all over the place, and there's something both inspiring and terrifiying about often-humanoid machines who may or may not improve upon our lowly human species.

When I was very young, cartoons were my primary exposure to robots. (That, and of course the Star Wars droids.) Transformers led the pack, but of course I also watched shows like Mighty Orbots, Voltron, and Robotech. I think I saw bits of Tranzor Z and Gigantor back then, too. Yes, I know those aren't the original names or formats of those series, but like everyone else, I didn't discover that until much later in life. When we were kids, everything was just "cartoons" regardless of its point of origin.

Later on, as I read more and more classic science fiction novels, I was introduced to Isaac Asimov's famous robots, among many others. This being an era when "nerdy" things were most certainly not cool, it was yet more ammunition for bullies, but I guess that couldn't be helped.

Moving into the 1990s, I properly discovered mecha-themed anime. That's when I saw stuff like Ghost in the Shell (androids and robots!) and Neon Genesis Evangelion, as well as discovering all of the old classics like Getter Robo and other super robot shows. Most importantly, I saw Mobile Suit Gundam Wing in 2000, which sowed the seeds for my current obsession with the Gundam franchise overall.

This fictional crap is all well and good, but what about real robots? As a kid, I was lucky enough to work with some actual robots during some summer learning clubs at a local community college. They had a unit rolling around, and we built some primitive robots out of LEGO, controlling them with the LEGO Logo programming language. At home, I had a motorized robot arm toy from Radio Shack; you've undoubtedly seen it before, as many different retailers sold the thing, all in varying colors and slightly different case designs. I also built all sorts of simple robots out of Robotix and Capsela kits. (My LEGO and Construx stuff didn't count; those were little more than statues or action figures. No motors or remote controls of any kind.)

In 1988, I decided to build my own robot from scratch after reading an article in Boys' Life magazine in the school library. (I was never going to get an , so constructing my own machine was a logical second choice.) My father thought this was a great idea, so we made a basic robot out of a trash can and named it Socrates. No idea why we chose that name, but it was like a Frankenstein's monster made of household items.

Bear in mind this was well before the days of eBay and the rest of the Web, so while most of the components were easily secured from hardware stores and our friendly neighborhood Radio Shack, tracking down the proper drive motors was a pain in the ass. If memory serves me right, we ended up ordering some from a Power Wheels replacement parts company. Socrates was a very basic robot indeed, but it was great fun to build, and got plenty of use at school science fairs. I believe it broke down a few years later, and was thus dismantled but maybe I'll create Socrates 2.0 someday.

Later in life, I remember building a few robot kits in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but I no longer have any of them. At one point, I had a fancy WAO model from OWI Robotics, but it was a bitch to program manually using the keypad on the back. There was a PC link available, but it was expensive, woefully out of date, and incompatible with Macs. No dice, so I ended up selling the WAO (and probably the others, too).

Nowadays, it's a cinch to find robot-building instructions on the Internet for just about any application. (Save for world domination. Curses!) I brainstormed about using an old webcam to build a wifi-enabled robot with which to creep out the cat. Aside from the cost necessary to build one, and my complete and utter lack of understanding when it comes to programming, it's probably a bad idea anyway. Our loveable seven-pound kitty would likely destroy it, and then wreak terrible, terrible vengeance upon me. (Underestimate her at your peril.)

I firmly believe that robots are our future, for better or for worse. I doubt we'll see anything like T-800s running around killing people; any malevolent artificial intelligence that wanted to wipe out humanity would have a much easier time doing so via other means. Anyway, let's hope science can advance to the point where and look helplessly antiquated, and we can live side by side with our robot counterparts and truly evolve.
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