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By (February 9, 2009) ()

I am fascinated by natural phenomena and I try to use biology in my ITP projects whenever I can. Since I am also taking a class about animals in art, I decided to look for animals in the Technovelgy timeline of science fiction inventions. There were a number of animal-like robots on the list. Most performed services for people–like the robot mice (“tiny cleaning machines”), and the robass (a robotic mule/car). Others seemed to be self-sufficient robotic species like the glass bees (a pretty thought). In some sense, animal-like robots are similar to the human-like robots or “emotionally supportive pals” described in Steve Talbott’s article. They make the technology seem more familiar and endearing.¬†

Nature can also camouflage technology, because animals blend in with their surroundings and appear innocent. A remote controlled flying scarab makes a well-disguised surveillance device in one story.  Animals provide great inspiration for designing robotic movement and function, as well.

A number of real live animals appeared in the list too. Some had been genetically engineered to do work, like the mining worm and the plastic eating bacteria. Others were put to work based on their natural abilities, like the tank of axolotls (which used axolotl regeneration to grow organic objects) and the “crosswell tapeworm” (consumed by humans for weight loss).

Then there was the flat cat, “a nearly two-dimensional furry little beast.” I’m not sure why the flat cat was included in the technovelgy list, since it is not really a technology. I do like the idea of an unobtrusive two-dimensional pet, though. It almost sounds like a virtual pet.

Here are three robo-animals from the list:

Robot Mice from The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950)

Nine-fifteen, sang the clock, time to clean.

Out of warrens in the wall, tiny robot mice darted. The rooms were acrawl with the small cleaning animals, all rubber and metal. They thudded against chairs, whirling their mustached runners, kneading the rug nap, sucking gently at hidden dust. Then, like mysterious invaders, they popped into their burrows. Their pink electric eyes faded. The house was clean.

-These mice are sort of like the rhumba. I would definitely be persuaded to buy them if they existed, not only because they clean, but also because they sound really cute. I am generally susceptible to attempts at persuasion that are lyrical or aesthetically pleasing. Robot mice could be put to work in other ways too. Perhaps they could follow you around your home and remind you to do things, like turn off the lights or close the refrigerator.

“Robass” from The Quest for Saint Aquin, by Anthony Boucher (1951)

He… took his first opportunity to inspect the robass in full light. He admired the fast-plodding, articulated legs, so necessary since roads had degenerated… the side wheels that could be lowered into action if surface conditions permitted; and above all the smooth black mound that housed the electronic brain – the brain that stored commands and data concerning ultimate objectives and made its own decisions on how to fulfill those commands in view of those data…

-The “robass” (great name) seems to be an intelligent car that drives itself with a really good GPS-equipped computer. This is a case where the contraption is modeled after nature so that it will work better — the articulated legs worked better on bad roads. Perhaps it also makes the device seem more trustworthy and easier to understand, since the different parts correspond to similar parts on a mule, ie. the brain is where data is stored and processed.

Scarab Flying Insect Robot from The Scarab by Raymond Z. Gallun (1936)

The Scarab paused on its perch for a moment, as if to determine for itself whether it was perfectly fit for action. It was a tiny thing, scarcely more than an inch and a half in length…

The Scarab rubbed its hind legs together, as flies will do when at rest. Then, apparently satisfied that it was in condition, it unfolded the coleoptera-like plates over its wings. With a buzz that any uninformed person would have mistaken for that of a beetle, it started out on its journey.

…the Scarab buzzed into the great workroom as any intruding insect might, and sought the security of a shadowed corner. There it studied its surroundings, transmitting to its manipulator, far away now, all that it heard through its ear microphones and saw with its minute vision tubes.

-Nature is used as camouflage here. Oddly enough, I visited a lab last summer that was growing gigantic moths for the US defense department. The lab sent the larvae to engineers who implanted microchips in their abdomens. The lab technician had no idea what the robo-moths were being used for… Disturbing isn’t it?

February 9, 2009

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