Total Robot Domination

Sometime in the first century, between 10 and 70 AD, Greek physicist, mathematician, and engineer Heron of Alexander (aka “Hero”) wrote several texts describing, in irritating vagueness, machines useful for heavy lifting, automated gadgets, war machines, and more than eighty other types of mechanical apparatuses including what may have been the world’s first steam engine.

Among his creations were automatic temple doors, an odometer for your chariot, the world’s first vending machine, and a seemingly bottomless wine glass with a reservoir designed to supply you with any necessary top-offs. If that still isn’t enough, he also invented a robot that could fill a wineglass placed in its hand.

“The product of the human brain has escaped the control of human hands. This is the comedy of science.” – Karel Čapek, who probably also had a proud mama. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, he didn’t call it a robot, or whatever the Greek equivalent of robot would be. That term wasn’t officially coined as a word for an automaton until 1920 when Czech playwright Karel Čapek used it in his play R. U. R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). The play is about a factory that makes robots which inevitably take over the world and wipe out all human life. And that’s exactly what fictional robots have been doing ever since.

But the earliest forms of robots were simply helpful curiosities that delighted and amazed and made Hero’s mama awfully proud. Now, I realize I’m being a little presumptuous here. I know nothing about Hero’s mama. She may not have been impressed at all, or she may have even been the brains behind Hero’s success. It’s possible that she was the Ada Lovelace of Ancient Greece. History doesn’t always remember the mamas (or women in general) as much as it should.

What I do know, is that I am a proud mama of a robot-maker. For two years now, my sixteen-year-old has been part of a robotics team through our school district. It’s a pretty well-established team with lots of community support and great volunteer mentors, both teachers of physics and engineering, and professional engineers and mechanics from the area.

I’m grateful for that because in this particular bit of my son’s wide-ranging interests, I don’t have much to offer. He doesn’t get it from me, but he definitely has a natural inclination toward design. One time when he was three years old, he heard us talking about a winter storm that was supposed to be blowing in and so he went to his room and changed the design of a bug-like structure he’d made with some of his building toys to “make it more stable” in the upcoming harsh conditions. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me, then, that he would jump at a chance to design robots.

Like everything else, the robotics team faced a strange year last year in the midst of the pandemic. All competitions were cancelled before they got a chance to show off their hard work and the design challenge was rolled over into this year. Then this year’s official competitions were cancelled, too.

Probably our new overlord.

Fortunately, a smaller school district in a tiny town in Southern Missouri put together an unofficial tournament in a fairly wide-open space. Teams had to limit the number of student representatives they could take and numbers of spectators were pretty tightly controlled, but it was something.

And this past weekend, I got to watch a surprisingly exciting championship in which my son’s team came out on top. To the best of my knowledge their little robot can’t pour a glass of wine, but it can swerve, spin a turntable, pick up balls to then accurately shoot at a target, and do a pretty impressive pullup.

I’m not exactly sure how these tasks are going to help it take over the world, but I probably know as much about science fiction as I don’t know about robots and I am certain it will figure it out. When it does, I’m going to be an awfully proud mama.

18 thoughts on “Total Robot Domination

    1. It is cool. I’m anxious for next season when I’m hopeful things will be a lot more normal. He’ll be an upper class man, too, and will get to take more of a lead roll in design. He’s ready. It’s clearly what he loves to do.

  1. Accuracy at aiming AND able to do pull ups? It sounds like a take over waiting to happen. Of course, getting all the humans drunk on wine would help with the take over, so I’m sure that’s planned for the next design. Congrats to him on the win, by the way!!

  2. I hope you have taken the time to teach him the Three Laws of Robotics or we might have trouble.

    1. A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

    2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

    3. A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

  3. This just makes me miss the town I had to leave behind even more than I already was. They were also very proud of their high school robotics team. Personally, because some of the best parts of my career were spent around “space cadets:”, I’m even prouder of the junior high group that recently launched their project into space. You and your son might be interested so here’s a link https://sites.google.com/view/ramsat/home

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