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Farting Robots and Shitting Ducks

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.

Meanwhile, from the University of West England comes Slugbot, whose projected food source is slugs. In a scenario worthy of Futurama, Slugbot doesn‘t have its gizzards onboard; it ventures out to hunt prey, then drags it back to a central base for later digestion. Speaking from firsthand experience in the trenches of slug warfare, I regard this project with nothing less than total awe. And really, when you think about it, the possibilities are endless. Cockroaches, mice, rats, those yapping Chihuahuas next door -- this could be the start of a whole new era in pest control. Sure, those little bastards may have rapid evolutionary responses, but you can’t outwit an artificial stomach. As Bender would say: Darwin, eat my shorts!

In his new book, THE FUTURE OF Flesh and Machine, robotics researcher Rodney Brooks argues that we are about to witness a Cambrian explosion in robot evolution. Director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, Brooks too is investigating the problem of artificial metabolism, as well as artificial reproduction. One current project at his lab is to build a Lego robot capable of building copies of itself out of Lego parts -- in short, a robot virus. Brooks is famous as the first to produce lifelike robot walkers, epitomized by the eight-legged Genghis, a kind of mechanical spider. Regarded by many as the world‘s leading roboticist, Brooks coined the phrase ”fast, cheap and out of control“ to summarize his brash, in-your-face philosophy, and he seems determined to push the evolution of artificial physiology as far as he can.

Not everyone is pleased with such ”progress“; for some, visions of The Matrix begin to loom large. Writing in Wired magazine and subsequently propagating his fears in lectures across the nation, computer pioneer Bill Joy wails and rails about the dangers of lifelike robots. For Brooks this is simply grist for the mill. Joy’s joylessness has in fact inspired Brooks to a project that may well be the first step on the road to a genuine Bender, a ”robot vermin.“ Mindless and pointless, this simple robot wanders the corridors looking for an electric socket to plug itself into. (Fans of Futurama will recall the psychedelic episode in which Bender himself became a power junkie, jacking into the mains for his electric fix.) The next step, Brooks says, is to make it hide during the day and only come out at night when there are few people around. Such a robot would have no purpose whatever except to keep itself ”alive“ by stealing power, and to freak out Bill Joy.

No one has done more than Brooks to advance the cause of robot evolution, and after two decades of silicon and steel, he‘s turning his mind to more labile materials. ”Our theme phrase now,“ he says, ”is that we’re going to build a robot out of Jell-O.“ He doesn‘t mean they are literally trying to bring Jell-O to life, rather that they are ”trying to figure out how we could build a robot out of ’mushy‘ stuff.“ As Brooks notes, nature solved the problem 4 billion years ago -- how long before mankind catches up? If he has his way, it’ll be sooner rather than later, which will no doubt piss off Bill Joy no end.

Note: Although Futurama has been canceled, 16 finished episodes are scheduled to run in the fall.