Saturday, 15 September 2012

Elephant No. 349: Wind-Up Robot

I can't take any credit for making an actual wind-up robot from scratch, because that would involve complicated thought, planning, and engineering skills that I don't possess. But I did come across a really cool little kit in a shop that stocks educational toys for children, and thought it would be interesting to try making a robot elephant.

I've been collecting mechanical tin toys since I was very young. In fact my first tin toy was given to me by my father when I was probably two years old: a Japanese toy with a man on a motorcycle, who actually drives around, then gets off and back on the motorcycle before driving off again. But wind-up tin toys are not robots. Today's toy is not a robot, either, but it does play one on TV—or at least in my little video below.

The word "robot" comes from the Czech word robota, meaning "forced labour". It was coined in the 1920 play R.U.R. ("Rossum's Universal Robots") by K. Čapek. Today, a robot is technically considered any mechanical device that can perform tasks automatically. Most robots still require human assistance in the form of remote controls or computer interface, although many recent robots are now able to respond to external stimuli or internal guidance systems.

Although clockwork figures date from at least the twelfth century A.D., the first actual robots—in other words, substitutes for human labour—were not invented until the middle of the twentieth century. For centuries before that, however, people had been playing with hydraulics, clockwork and pneumatics to produce working models that could perform a number of functions, usually for the entertainment and amusement of nobles. Some of the most famous of these are a fire engine and wind organ from the first century A.D., some elaborate automata that were nearly robotic designed by Leonardo da Vinci during the fifteenth century, and the Japanese karakuri of the nineteenth century, which could do things such as serve tea and shoot arrows.

Archer karakuri by Tamaya Shobei IX.

As mechanical technologies improved during the Industrial Revolution, people began adapting machinery to perform some of the functions normally undertaken by people, and true robotics were born. The first remote-controlled robot, named Elektro, was exhibited at the World's Fair in 1939, and was produced by scientists at the Westinghouse Corporation.

As electronics evolved during the 1940s, autonomous robots became possible, and in 1948 William Walter of Bristol, England, introduced the world's first electronic robot. By 1954, the world's first digital and programmable robot had been invented in the United States by George Devol. Sold to General Motors in 1961, it was put to work lifting hot metal from die-casting machines in a New Jersey automotive plant.

Elektro at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City.
Photo: Scott Schaut/Mansfield Memorial Museum

Because robots lack many of the physical limitations as humans, they can be used in extreme environments such as Space and the ocean floor, and for dangerous tasks such as bomb disposal. There are also robots to perform boring tasks such as vacuuming, mowing the lawn and even washing the floor.

In countries such as Japan, which lack enough workers for tasks such as care of the elderly, lifelike humanoid robots are being developed to take on these functions. So far, these don't appear to be entirely successful. In a video I saw a couple of years ago, a robot designed to help the elderly in and out of bed kept dropping its dummy onto the floor.

RI Man, the helper robot that wasn't always so helpful, 2007.

Although many things are called robots, most robots must have most of the following qualities:

• It must be able to interact with physical objects.
• It must be electrical.
• It must be able to do a range of activities, rather than a single motion or task.
• It must be able to process data.
• It must be able to respond to stimuli.

These days, the more a robot seems able to act on its own—although hopefully not to actually think entirely on its own—the more likely it is to be called a robot. Today, roughly half of the world's robots are found in Asia, with 32% located in Europe, 16% in North America, 1% in Australasia, and 1% in Africa. A whopping 30% of all robots are in Japan.

There is something of an East-West divide when it comes to opinions about robots. In many Asian societies, robots are seen as relatively equivalent to humans, able to function as substitute caregivers, teachers, and even pets. The general feeling about robots in the East is that the more robots advance, the better, and the idea of "a robot in every house" is not an unwelcome one.

In the West, however, people are more likely to be against the development of sentient robots, with a vague fear that they could one day replace, or at least overwhelm, humans. This fear is particularly apparent in connection with the capabilities of military robots. As these become more complex, there are concerns regarding the ability of military robots to make autonomous decisions.

Personally, I'm not sure how I feel about robots. Although I don't suffer from "Frankenstein complex"—which is essentially a fear of robots—I don't want one that will vacuum my house, lift me up, or lick my face.

A couple of years ago, a journalist friend did a televised piece on Japanese robots in which he called one of the more humanoid ones, "kind of creepy." It was indeed kind of creepy. In fact, I find even the more cuddly Japanese robots vaguely disturbing. I worked on an exhibition on Japanese innovation last year which featured a life-sized baby seal robot that made cooing noises, batted its eyes and kind of squirmed around. Some people found it adorable. I didn't. And I like baby seals.

Paro, the therapeutic baby seal robot.

Elephants have also inspired robotics. For more on elephant-related robotics, see my posts on scouring pads and oil pastels.

For today's elephant, I finally splashed out on one of the wind-up robot kits. I had actually looked at these kits a few times over the past couple of months, but I kept thinking that I didn't want an elephant that looked too robotic. Yesterday, however, I had a sudden vision of what my robot elephant might look like, so I bought the kit.

It comes with everything you see here.

Because all the wind-up chassis are blue, I started by painting mine silver with acrylic paint. I know acrylic paint won't last on this surface, but I didn't feel like going to another shop to buy enamel paint.

And, because this is an elephant, and there were no elephant parts in the kit, I cut out two ears, a trunk and some tusks, then painted them with silver and pink to match the silver body that I'd chosen to use.

I looked at the sheets of stickers and other bits in the kit next, and chose a few things to colour with the markers in the kit.

When I was finished, this was everything I had, ready to assemble my little robot elephant.

The photograph below shows what the body looked like when completed. In the end, I decided to leave off the tusks, and I changed the eyes to something smaller. I also decided to attach everything—except the eye stickers and mouth sticker—with the little brads in the kit, to make it look more "mechanical". I had also drawn and coloured both sides of the arms—which had been printed on only one side—so that they'd look nice if I decided to raise the arms in a "raahhr" pose.

And this was the chassis, with double-sided tape squares to attach the body.

Once it was all assembled, I decided to film it in action. It's a cheap wind-up mechanism, so only runs for a few seconds at a time, but the little video below will give you an idea.


It took me longer than I expected to make this, but that was mostly because I made extra elephant pieces, and because I kind of agonized over which stickers and pieces from the kit to use.

Although part of me wishes I hadn't added so much colour to this, it's still kind of fun. Next time I might paint everything silver, including the stickers. But for now, I like this little guy, and will probably add him to my collection of wind-up tin toys.

Elephant Lore of the Day
The Rogue Elephant of Aberdare Forest was an actual African bush elephant that terrorized villages in the Aberdare Mountains of Kenya during the early part of the twentieth century. The elephant was said to be so clever that it never attacked the same village twice.

One night, after the elephant had attacked two men, killing one of them, runners from the village went in search of big-game hunter J.A. Hunter. Although Hunter—a friend of the village chief—was tracking game with two Canadian sportsmen that day, he agreed to hunt down the elephant.

The village chief told Hunter that the elephant had been terrorizing villagers for months. It had destroyed crops, attacked people, and had now killed someone. The latest victim had not only been crushed, but had also had his limbs torn off—although it was unclear whether this was the elephant's doing, or the work of other animals.

The chief advised waiting a day or two before setting off, since the elephant was certain to strike again. And indeed it did, attacking a nearby village that very night and destroying the crops. This gave Hunter a fresh trail, which led into the deepest part of forest. Hunter came upon the elephant feeding on bamboo and too aim with his rifle. The elephant, however, was too quick for Hunter and, catching his scent, quickly took off.

The next day, the elephant was sighted in a village three miles away, tearing down a crop of trees. Following the elephant's trail into the forest yet again, Hunter and his party came across the elephant eating bamboo shoots. Scenting the humans, the elephant immediately wheeled around and charged. Hunter quickly took aim, and fired at the centre of the elephant's skull. The elephant fell to the ground, and was quickly finished off with a shot to the back of the neck.

When the elephant was examined, he was found to be a rather unhealthy specimen, with poorly formed tusks that weighed only a third of what they should. It was also discovered that there was a musket ball lodged in the nerve centre at the base of the elephant's right tusk. Hunter suspected this to be the work of an Arab ivory hunter, and believed that the pain of the bullet was what had caused the elephant to become so dangerous and aggressive.

African bush elephant, Tanzania, 2011.
Photo: Muhammad Mahdi Karim

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