On Building Robots

Who among us does not harbor a secret desire to build robots? They permeate our cultural consciousness, from Rosie on the Jetsons to the little Star Wars droid, R2-D2. My favorite fictional robot is Gort from the movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still”. He is both intimidating and benevolent, like a strict disciplinarian father figure, keeping us in line for our own good. Sure, he doesn’t look like much but his power is symbolic, not sexual. I first saw this movie as a young teen and it struck a chord with me, perhaps because my own father had died of cancer a few years earlier and I felt my life veering out of control. Or perhaps the media coverage of Watergate and the Vietnam War and policies of Mutually Assured Destruction, while I may have been too young to understand them at the time, had given me an inkling into the greedy and short-sighted nature of humankind.

I saw on IMDB that they are currently remaking this movie with Keanu Reaves and Jennifer Connelly. Apparently the new film focuses on being kind to Mother Earth rather than preventing nuclear holocaust. I think that’s a good message. Now more than ever, we need to develop sustainable technologies or we may not have a culture left. Given Hollywood’s tendancy to focus on visual effects rather than story-telling, I don’t have particularly high hopes for this film, but I am glad that Tim Burton is not directing.

So yes, I have always wanted to build robots (or maybe synthesizers). I had taken a couple of classes at the local community college in electronics before I was diagnosed with cancer. But I can’t take any classes right now, and I haven’t even bought myself a soldering iron so I haven’t progressed very far with my plans. That doesn’t mean I have given up. Somethings just take time.
Awhile ago I asked my teenage daughter to draw me a picture of a “cute” robot. Gort was certainly not cute. My typical idea of a robot seems to be stuck in childhood images, quite blocky and unengaging. We had both read an article in Wired Magazine about the science of cute, as epitomized by Japanese creations like Hello Kitty and Pikachu. Cuteness requires a large head and small, useless appendages. Just like a baby! Apparently, we humans are biologically wired to perceive helpless beings of this sort as cute.I suppose there is some allowance for variations in taste when it comes to animation styles, but it’s certainly hard to deny that most mammal babies are cute even though they’re not human.

My daughter drew what I perceived to be a very cute robot and I recently turned it into a vector drawing using a trial copy of Xara Xtreme. Xara is a great program for creating web graphics and the like. I also have Paint Shop Pro which is good for formatting but unwieldy for drawing. I liked the little robot so much that I put it on a t-shirt and bought one for myself from Cafe Press. Here’s a picture of the robot. You can click on it to see what the t-shirt looks like.

sad robot


And yet, drawing a robot is not the same as building one. I did run across a very inspiring website the other day called Communist Robot. It has videos from robotics labs around the world. The walking legs from Tsinghua were particularly cool. Maybe I should go buy that soldering iron.


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