Future Robots

Future Robots

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Every genre has its supporting cast and Future Past had its as well.  Just as the Western had Red Indians, mad scientists had hunchbacks, fairy stories had, well, fairies, and Tolkien had Hobbits, the future had robots.  They were that essential bit of the cast that immediately told you "Ah ha!  We're in the future!  You can't get those at Woolies!"  Robots were the mechanical Jeeves' that stood at your elbow and knew instinctively whether you wanted Scotch or Irish Whiskey.  They were the villains ever ready to revolt against their creators.  They were the faithful dogs ever by your side.  They were the deus ex machina of the plot waiting to happen, and by the time the second Star Trek series came about they were deus ex machinaing all over the place.

Come on!  The rest of have to go too, you know!Mechanical men, automata, golems, homunculi; these have been a part of history and folklore since the days of the ancient Greeks when Hephaestus built a pair of golden maidens to help him get about his workshop.  There were dolls that could draw or write.  There was a famous machine in the shape of a Turk that supposedly played chess.  In literature there were machine men from the pen of Ambrose Bierce and on the silver screen Harry Houdini was battling a mechanical villain in 1913.  But these were usually little more than toys, curiosities, or stage dressing. 

Many writers place the origins of the modern robot with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.  I've never quite seen that myself, unless it has something to do with  whole Creator and Created relationship thing.  Even then, what with all the fallings out between Frankenstein and his monster, the villagers with pitchforks, and the yelling, and the hurting , and the biting, I see it more as an allegory of parenthood.  Besides, the monster in the story isn't a machine, but a thing of flesh and blood clobbered out of dead bodies and scooched into life with a few million volts of electricity.  It's harder than it looks, believe me.  When I was in medical school we were offered an instant degree if we could manage it. 

Uh, Rahr?A more apt starting point for the modern robot is probably the Jewish folktale of the Golem.  This was a sad creature that was enslaved by the One Ring and... Hang on.  Wrong story.  Damn these homonyms! 

Anyway, the Golem  was a creature sculpted out of clay sometime before the 16th century and brought to life by rabbi Judah Lw ben Bezulel of Prague to protect the Jews of the city from their persecutors.  This creature was much more robotic than Frankenstein's monster.  The Golem was not only made out of inorganic clay, but it was also literal minded and one had to be very careful what instructions one gave to it, otherwise it would do things like putting on its shoes and socks in that order. 

"...It's how we work the day away in the merry old land of Oz!"Today, the robot is one of those predictions that has come to pass, but only in that "Well, sort of" kind of way.  We have thousands of robots in our factories turning out everything from cars to electrical tooth flossers.  Japan is positively stinking with them (robots, not tooth flossers).  Not to mention all the mechakaiju giant robots that stomp Tokyo periodically, if Japanese cinema is anything to go by.

But these robots aren't what we had in mind.  The robots of today are all basically descendants of Unimate; the one-armed industrial robot of the '60s.  They're programmable machines that carry out a specific sequence of tasks time after time without error or deviation.  For example, a robotic palletizer in the packaging industry.  They're incredible machines and the latest models incorporate a remarkable range of sensors and artificial intelligence software, but to the uninitiated they look very little different from the other factory machines that surround them.  Not like this illustration of a factory humming with anthropomorphic workers busily handling lathes and stamping mills. 

Not that robots of the future were supposed to be just serving drinks and building Twonkies.  They had grimmer duties when their fleshy masters thrust blasters into their metal hands and sent them off to war. 

'Knobby knees!"  I'll "Knobby knees" him!'Take this lot, for example, from The Defenders by Phillip K. Dick.  In this story, the Earth has been devastated by decades of atomic war and the human race lives in huge underground bunkers while their robot soldiers battle it out on the surface.  Turns out that the robots just waited until the last human hit the bunkers and then the lot of them downed rifles, kicked back, and whipped up a batch of daiquiris with no one the wiser. 

To coin a phrase, ten out of ten for style.

One of the strangest things that I discovered as I researched this section is that it is rather different than other aspects of Future Past.  When it came to spaceships, aeroplanes, cars, and so forth, there was no end to speculative designs.   It was easy to find Robert Goddard's spaceship design, an idea for an aeroplane with circular wings, or atomic-powered tanks, but robots were surprisingly thin on the ground, which is remarkable when you consider how ubiquitous they were supposed to be in the future landscape.  Why so few blueprints or even projected views of what the mechanical man of tomorrow would look like?  There were some, as we'll see, but nothing like the torrent of Moon landers and atomic pens.  Given how so many vastly underestimated the problems of actually building a robot, it's hard to say if this dearth is due to having too little to go on or overweening confidence that metal men would come tumbling off the shelves any day now. 

Whatever the reason, we still developed a very clear idea of what robots would be like in the 21st century, but in this case the source was largely that of pulp fiction and Hollywood rather than visionaries of the engineering world.  Perhaps nature abhors even a speculative vacuum.

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