Category Archives: robots

What’s Old Is New Again: Robots and Superheroes!

This was going to be a post about robots and how I’ve seen it all and read it all, such that when new tech is developed, I’m rolling my eyes and muttering, “Yeah, I already saw that in Terminator; whaddya mean a tank-killing robot is the coolest new kid on the block?”

By the way, the tank-killing robot is in today’s news cycle. But I decided to keep my title that was meant to be about robots and talk about superhero films, instead, because everything is interconnected. I got bored of them. Are you sensing a theme here? I’m not generally a bored person. I can amuse myself for hours just staring at a wall. When it comes to media and its ever-growing intensity for the coolest way to blow up tanks and trucks and tanks that hover down from space and giant wheels that are going to destroy everything, not to mention New York, I get bored after a while. I mean, how many times do they have to destroy New York for it to be good enough?! Maybe they didn’t get the light quite right in that one Spider-Man film — or maybe it was the way the buildings fell or the way the cars crumpled that wasn’t quite good enough the last time Hulk batted around a bad guy like a ragdoll.

And don’t get me started on the growing number of heroes out there. It wasn’t enough keeping up with both Marvel and DC. Television shows had to start creating their own supers. Do you remember Heroes, for example? The first season was great. And then everybody became a superhero. Seriously, what’s interesting about supers is their uniqueness that gives them those angsty feelings of I am so unique, and I alone must save the entire world! Well, maybe, I’ll take my ragtag friends with me, and they’ll save the world with me because loyalty to friends is always a good theme, too. Or maybe we’ll just save New York! But not until it’s been thoroughly destroyed. Again! But in shows like Heroes, you’d turn a corner and a new super would be there waiting, walking toward you with flames emitting from their hands or some such tomfoolery. When everybody is super, nobody is super! Can we agree on just that one little tidbit?

After a while, I vowed to never watch another superhero film again. My friends and loved ones were appalled at my bad attitude. They started going to the theater without me, leaving me to stew in my own unique angstiness of the supervillain wringing my hands and plotting to destroy the Earth just to be done with superhero media altogether. I mean, I get it, some of the heroes are from space, but destroying the Earth would go a long way toward eradicating the worst of the Wolverines, Catpeople, and Bathumans.

Deep breath. Then, after a few long years, I decided to be mom-like and friendly and go see Guardians of the Galaxy with my family. I have to admit I loved it. It was funny and had Chris Pratt. The old joy inspired by heroes and justice filled my heart — that joy from my childhood love of wanting to be Wonder Woman. And then I watched the Guardians sequel, the new Wonder Woman, Thor: Ragnarok, and Infinity War. Infinity War gave me the desire to watch Black Panther, which I’d missed during its short stint in our local theaters. Despite what could be viewed as a theme of globalism, the acting was good, with the comic elements I always enjoy in superhero films.

That brings me to Incredibles II, which I just saw this week. Now my imaginary cape is again deflated. The makers of this film actually waited fourteen years to make the sequel, so they aren’t the ones cranking out the heroes en masse. However, aside from a few great fight scenes and a nice pro-family theme, it was ultimately predictable. I’d seen it all before. I knew who the bad guy was when [xxxx] entered the room. The best character was the unpredictable baby Jack-Jack, and I don’t know if I’ll care about him by the time Pixar decides to make a third installment: if too many superheroes are annoying, so is a super with too many powers (especially after he learns to be use them better).

The world always needs new heroes, but I need a break again. Sometimes, I need to see average people become great heroes — people who aren’t mutants or aliens and who don’t have access to magic potions and out-of-this-world technology. I watched Black Panther while we were on vacation, but do you know what else I watched? Queen of Katwe and Pelé, both films (available on Netflix) about real life people who overcame the odds of living in impoverished slums by working hard to be great at something. Those two films left an impression in my mind greater than all the super films put together.

And you know what else? Despite Terminator films, the world has need for great real-life tech, too, so I’ll leave you with a link to an article about the tank-killing robots. I’ll let that fill my imagination until I suddenly realize we may need Captain America to defeat such awful tech. At that point, I’ll be back in the theater watching him destroy…perhaps Los Angeles this time. Hmmm…sounds fun.

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Steam Powered Robotics: Mr. Steam Man

The steam engine, however viable (it is), has become an anachronism in retro future fantasies. Of course, the steam engine was quite popular up until about the 1940s, when the diesel engine became de rigueur due to economics; diesel engines were cheaper to operate. That was then. The steam engine could still make a comeback, if consumers could be convinced that the technology is neither dangerously explosive, and neither is it tediously slow to get going for the morning commute. Meanwhile, the steam engine gives rise to Victorian images of women in corsets and men in coattails, wearing goggles in their magic flying vehicles — also, machines using intricate clockwork as well as steam. Unless the fashion changes considerably in the future, nobody will be wearing goggles or corsets in their steam powered hybrid cars. But, honestly, just as steampunk authors do, I’m imagining a future which doesn’t exist…or doesn’t yet exist.

When looking at the steamy past and all its magical elements  (the past holds a kind of magic, living as it does in mental time travel) what captures my imagination the most is Mr. Steam Man. Yes, Mr. Steam Man. He was invented by one Mr. Dederick in 1868. In reality, he was simply a steam engine cloaked as a man, who could pull along a phaeton. The engine was given a humanesque appearance, apparently, so as not to scare the horses that would be pulling along the usual carriages dashing up and down the streets. Mr. Steam Man had a driver, of course, who could turn the contraption or alter its speed. In the book image below, the driver appears to be holding reins — as if a steam engine would need reins. What Mr. Steam Man did require was steam pressure that was built up through the use of coal. Mr. Dederick made a number of fancy claims about his invention, e.g. that it could step over small objects in the roadway and that it could cover a mile in only a couple of minutes. The inventor also had plans to create a steam-powered horse, to be used for farming, etc. Sadly, his invention never really took off.

As if to codify steam power into the popular imagination, however, the author Edward S. Ellis went ahead and wrote a sci fi book about a steam man. In the novel, a crazy inventor by the name of Johnny Brainerd invents a rotund steam man to pull him along into a world of adventures. You can find a copy of The Huge Hunter or, the Steam Man of the Prairies at Project Gutenberg.

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The God Who Made Robots

Let’s remember for a moment that there must be a difference between a Creator God who creates intelligent beings who possess free will, and a lesser god who creates automatons — animated statues — that are essentially magical robots of ancient lore. If there weren’t a difference, we’d all be robots. There would be no separation between us and animated statues. That would also put us in the peculiar position of becoming our own minor deities as we create animated automatons for ourselves, as this Chinese inventor has done. Perhaps he sees himself as a minor deity among men, as he has programmed her to demurely ask, “What can I do for you, my Lord?” Sometimes, a man must have respect, even if only from an automoton who’s compelled by creation to give it.

Hephaestus was a crippled god. Like men with limitations, this Greek god became a skilled inventor and creator, using metal to craft armor, chariots, bows and arrows, and many other implements, suffused with his own godlike powers. He was, in fact, the foremost smith of Mount Olympus. For example, it was Hephaestus who created Hermes’ winged helmet and sandals. What it must have been like to be the crippled god crafting the magical devices of more attractive and powerful gods!

That’s how the world works, though. He was rejected by his own mother for his shriveled foot, originally exiled from Mount Olympus. In one story, in which the goddess Hera had rejected him, he forged her a throne that would ensnare her when she sat on it. The other gods, wanting Hera released from her snare, begged him to come back to Mount Olympus. He refused, and eventually was forced back to his origins via Dionysus getting him drunk and strapping him to a mule — to the Place of Gods that had rejected him.

Because of his difficulty in moving around, he invented metalwork automatons, such as tripods to carry things to Mount Olympus and back. And then, in perhaps the ultimate expression of the Greek concept of Ekphrasis, he also created golden maidens who could speak and learn and move about, waiting on their master. What we see in the god Hephaestus is the image of a broken man who used his skills to improve his mobility, gain him approval from his peers, and make himself more desirable to females. We also see his dark side: the rejected genius who invents tools to wreak revenge on those who’ve hurt him.

The motivations of human inventors no doubt varies, mirroring Hephaestus’ complex image. According to Jungian theory a la Campbell, men are inspired to create because they can never be fulfilled in the way women are through childbearing. And so they throw their genius in the creation of art and technology. It’s an interesting theory, in any case. There are women who are tinkerers, but they’re rare. From that Jungian perspective, man’s desire to create automatons makes sense. Even deeper, from a creation perspective, humans are compelled to create because of God’s image stamped on their souls. The woman bears the fleshly child; the man forges children from metal.

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