By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The first of a new, biweekly column on science from the author of The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace and Pythagoras’ Trousers: God, Physics and the Gender Wars
I‘ve signed the petition, signature number 134,042 (www.gotfuturama.comcancelled), so clearly I’m not the only one mourning the passing of Futurama. Though, frankly, and I am sure this is not an irrelevant statistic, I have yet to meet another soul aside from my husband who actually watched the show. Too bad, because Futurama, a hyperkinetic hybrid of The Simpsons and Star Trek, is one of the most brilliant sci-fi parodies ever conceived. If there were any doubts about Matt Groening‘s genius, Bender blew them away.
Bender is of course a robot -- but one in a class of his own. In classic science fiction, the function of the robot (or its fleshy facsimile) is rational reflection (think Data and Mr. Spock). Though Spock is a Vulcan, his persona is strictly machinic, an android in spirit if not technically in flesh, while his Next Generation counterpart, Lieutenant Commander Data, is unambiguously pure construct. A Mensa Dream Team, cool, calm and calculating at every turn, are the guys you can call on when the dilithium drive melts down and the space-time matrix ruptures. Bender, he’d be down the back of the bus chugging beers. If Data is the silicon sibling of the icy Vulcan Spock, all quiet reason and prim restraint, Bender is the titanium twin of Homer Simpson, belching and farting his way through time and space. With this venal, indulgent sensualist, Groening thumbs his nose at the whole tradition of artificial intelligence: Fuck chess, pass the nachos.
For much of the past half-century, robotics research has focused on tasks requiring concerted mental acuity -- navigating a maze, for instance, or precise mechanical assembly -- but a new generation of researchers are beginning to turn their attention to more ”mundane“ corporeal functions such as walking and scuttling. And yes, some of the finest minds in the field are currently trying to make robots that fart and shit and pee.
Mechanical simulation of alimentary function dates at least to the 18th century, when a French tinkerer named Jacques de Vaucanson dazzled Europe with his amazing automata. (The word robot wasn‘t coined until 1920 by Czech playwright Karel Capek.) Straddling the domains of science and entertainment, Vaucanson was fascinated by the subtleties of the human body; his long-term dream was to build a complete artificial man. One of his first constructions was a marvelous mechanical flute player with elaborately simulated windpipe and lungs whose performance, it was said, bested the finest flutists of the day. But Vaucanson’s most extraordinary invention was a mechanical duck that ate and digested food and then eliminated the ensuing muck.
Exquisitely crafted out of gilded copper, Vaucanson‘s duck was fashioned with anatomically correct wings, each ”bone“ adorned with feathers. The whole apparatus was powered by a weight, rather like a grandfather clock; it flapped its wings, stretched out its neck and ate grain from an astonished spectator’s hand. For Vaucanson the real action was on the inside, where he had fabricated an artificial stomach. Consumed grain passed along a series of rubber tubes, through which it was ”digested“ before being excreted out the rear end.
Haute Paris‘ scatological tastes are well-documented -- as in the case of the celebrated 19th-century ”fartiste“ Le Petomane, a.k.a. Joseph Pujol, who wowed audiences with his own unique wind instrument, trumpeting extensive tunes through a neatly tailored hole in his red velvet pants. Similarly, Vaucanson’s defecating duck enthralled a society whose doyens were privileged to watch the internal processes taking place inside the pedestal on which the creature perched. Vaucanson‘s legacy to the colonic arts did not stop there:He later embarked on an expedition to Guiana to further his rubber research, and is remembered as a pioneer in the development of flexible hosing.
Jacques de Vaucanson apparently mastered a technology that eludes robotics researchers today. Stuart Wilkinson of the University of South Florida is a leader in the emerging field of what he terms ”gastrobotics,“ yet Wilkinson’s creatures are nowhere near the pooping stage -- the best he‘s been able to master so far is farts. Wilkinson is the creator of Chew Chew, a meterlong robot resembling a small train that he tells me is essentially ”a stomach on wheels.“ Instead of plugging into an electric socket, Chew Chew gets its energy by eating sugar cubes. The guts of the operation (literally) is a microbial fuel cell in which E. coli bacteria break down the sugar, converting its chemical energy to electrical energy that powers a DC motor. Sugar is a particularly pure form of energy, so Chew Chew’s only waste product is a bit of gas, but Wilkinson dreams of a more solid future.
His long-term aim is a fleet of robots that power themselves by ”eating“ grass clippings and other vegetable wastes: Imagine a gastrobot mower that trims your lawn, or a gutter-diving ”rodent“ that lives off leaves. Eating leads inevitably to defecating, but it‘s a long way from farts to poop, and between these two poles is the critical matter of pee. Wilkinson’s current project is a robot that feeds on orange juice, and when we talked, the gastrobotician was deep into the problem of robot urine, a matter necessitating construction of an artificial liver and kidney.