When I was 10 I wanted to build robots. When I was 50 I decided I would finally do some things I’ve wanted to do since I was 10.
Robots are fun to imagine, but designing one reveals a few surprising thoughts.
1) We’re already surrounded by robots. A dishwasher is a robot that washes dishes. The thermostat, microwave oven, and refrigerator are robots with specific functions and very limited anthropomorphization.
Increasingly, even our cars are robots. Many features of “Knight Rider” now ship standard on select models.
We’re not encouraged to think of the car or dishwasher as a living thing – but we might take it personally if it fails in specific ways.
2) Interactive and even somewhat anthropomorphic robots are expensive but are now widely available – yet I don’t want to buy one.
I want to build one, and my reasons for that reveal the only real purpose it will serve for me.
3) Kits to build robots are easy to find – but like costume building, buying something off the shelf feels like cheating. I don’t want to identify myself by someone else’s work. (For related reasons, I enjoy robot-building toys – but my goal lies beyond them.)
In a world where many (most?) high schools now offer robotics, it’s clearly myself that I’m most interested in reassembling into a more functional state.
Yet the availability of parts is why I can now do what I couldn’t do in high school, when I created robot arms in machine shop but never motorized them. Learning to follow in others’ footsteps in a vital part of the process – and one which I’ve instinctively avoided since childhood.
4) An animator told my college art class that animation was two things at once: a hand drawing or still image, and a living thing in motion. Animation is at its best when these two states are in perfect balance. Animation that moves too little seems lifeless and stagnant, while animation that’s *too* lifelike loses its uncanny charm.
All art seems to work the same way. A landscape painting is both paint on a canvas and an image of another time and place. A song is both a creative experience of another time and place, and a sensual experience of here and now.
A robot is both a seemingly inanimate object – a machine – and a seemingly living thing. The balance of those two states is the whole of its ominous appeal.
I want to build a robot not as a problem-solving tool – not to substitute for anything from life – but as an art project.
5) The distinction between inanimate objects and living things is very different than it was even a few decades ago. A radio controlled car is essentially a robot, and might have seemed miraculous in the 1950s. Now, RC cars are fun to play with – but provide none of the uncanny spark, the suspension of disbelief, that we find in robots.
6) Many interactive toy robots are actually remote controlled devices – so that the motion or behavior of the toy may seem anthropomorphic, but every decision is made by the human holding the remote. The toy robot is clearly an extension of the human, and not an eerily separate entity. A remote controlled toy is fun stuff, and perhaps even more fun to play with – but it’s one more step away from the apparent creative goal of balancing the states of living and non-living.
7) Designing robots to make their own decisions makes the whole project vastly more dangerous. Long before our sentient automatons rise against their creators, a rolling robot toy prototype might recognize no reason to stay out of traffic, refrain from denting the car, avoid the swimming pool, or steer around your foot as it crosses the room.
8) Noted above, “suspension of disbelief” is in some part my real goal. As magician Dai Vernon put it: “In the performance of good magic,the mind is led on, step by step, to ingeniously defeat its own logic.” An interactive robot creates a sense of something living – which is charming precisely because we understand all the ways it is not true.
9) As the image of my project formed in my mind, I recognized that it would be not a helpful machine, but a kind of sidekick – or even a pet.
10) I respect animal owners, and I suspect that the more limited responsibilities of robot ownership are part of the appeal for me.
From behind that thought, another memory emerged: the imaginary friends I interacted with as a kid.
It was clear I was calling upon some unspoken ambition – not to replace the friends I enjoy in life, nor to heal any feeling of lifelessness I felt within.
As with so many creative pursuits, the goal is to locate the magic. The goal of my favorite music is to reveal the music within every sound shaking through the world. The goal of my favorite writing is to reveal the magic within the most mundane observations of life. The goal of building a robot is to reveal the personality and magic within the most common and lifeless of materials. All of these rituals put the sense of magic, of God, of vitality – back where it should be: everywhere.
The technical specifics are extremely rudimentary and are a separate discussion. Ping me if you want updates.