Tag Archives: robots

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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An Irrational Robot is a Happy One

artwork by Emille Domschot © 2012

As the first female affirmative action hire at CessCorp, my image was in for a beating with Leanne the Fem Bot trailing me on her little wheeled feet. Tittering followed in our wake.

“Oh, why did they give me you, Leanne?” I slumped back in my office chair, and she handed me a coffee mug filled with a dark beverage, the color of coffee, the taste of dirt. Leanne was proficient at handing me things.

“Because I’m cute.” She giggled.

Face in hands, my mind blanked for precisely three minutes and thirty-five seconds, according to the constant numerical countdown on my quota clock. With a weary head jerk, I shook the grogginess from my skull.

“Don’t sleep, silly Marta,” Leanne said. “You haven’t met your quota yet. We girls have to stick together.”

“If you would actually help me, I might meet my quota. This job was such a mistake, of which, you were the biggest.”

As Leanne rolled backwards and gave off her peculiar whirring noise that passes for crying in a dumb-blonde, hyperventilating robot, I regretted my words. Poor Leanne–yes, I could arrive at a point where I pitied a mechanical person.

She gave off a series of gasping breaths. “It isn’t my fault I was born blonde. Blondes have more fun, but they don’t do stats!”

Not for the first time, I wanted to rip the rakish blonde wig off Leanne’s robot head. “You aren’t blonde. You’re a robot. You don’t have a hair color.”

I swiveled in my work chair and stared dumbly at the mess Leanne had made of my apartment. Currently, she was occupied with her reflection in the mirror, rather than in helping me with my duties. Her little head cocked, her fist raised to her chin, she might have passed for a thinker if she actually had access to the vast stores of information inside her databases.

When the computer boys first brought her to me, I understood immediately what they meant by the gesture. I was the first woman at CessCorp; Leanne the first fem bot. Because of me, one of the .00005% of the male population who was capable of doing my job would be denied due to the unfairness of affirmative action. They left her wearing clothes better suited for a streetwalker, a blonde wig tilted over her titanium head. Somebody–definitely no Leonardo–had painted red lipstick in a smear around her mouth, a pink circle on each cheek, and green eyeshadow that created triangles over her eyes.

Angered, but understanding my predicament, I quietly dressed her in proper robot clothes and scrubbed her face clean before I brought her to life–at which point, she hit me with the punchline of their joke. Leanne had the same information stored in her databases that all the CessCorp robots had, but lacked the ability to send the information to her mind, where she should have been able to process it. Leanne was, literally, empty in the head. And she was right. It wasn’t her fault.

While the other statistical analysis experts used their bots to tidy up their CessCorp apartments and cook their meals, as well as provide them much needed sleep and leisure time by helping to sort information and create relevant algorithms, Leanne could do nothing but hand me the coffee-colored beverage I brewed for myself and stare at herself in the mirror. Oh, and don’t forget–she had the ability to pull all my clothes and shoes from the closet, the same ones every day, and fling them over the furniture while proclaiming, “Gawd! We really need to go shopping! Where’s the mall?”

Therefore, in order to meet my quota, I worked around the clock with no sleep and no leisure time. The fat paychecks I earned as the first female trial-run (exactly $10,000 less than the rookie male hires) were direct-deposited into my account, where the excess accrued compounding interest.

After several days’ worth of blanking at my computer, my quota fell to far below the average, and management pulled me in for a meeting to give me my first warning.

“You have two weeks to get your quota up,” the oily-slick manager named Weston said. “Or we’ll have to let you go.”

Before we rolled out of Weston’s office, Leanne hissed in her usual sad attempt at whispering, “Gawd, Marta. What an ass. He’s ugly. Where are all the cute boys?”

Under normal circumstances, I would have choked back my laughter. But these were anything but normal circumstances, and my laugh rang out loud and clear. Yeah, Weston I wanted to say. Where are all the cute boys? Not here at CessCorp, that’s for sure.

Instead, I laughed all the way to the CessCorp community bank, down one level and a hundred paces through the West Wing, Leanne rolling behind me, cackling like a teenage girl. If anybody tittered in our wake, I didn’t hear it.

I emptied my bank account and turned to Leanne with a secretive smile. “Do you wanna go shopping for cute boys?”

“Marta, that’s the best suggestion you’ve had all day.”

In her attempt to arrange her hair, she tilted her already skewed wig so she appeared as a stoic, alcoholic prostitute who had suffered from syphilis and lost her nose to mercury poisoning. I’m not sure why the bot creators failed to give their creations noses.

As she followed me into the elevator, she asked (and I could almost imagine her wrinkling her nonexistent nose), “This is the way to the mall?”

“Yes,” I said, and punched the basement button. The basement was the location of the bot shop and, although nobody was allowed down there without a pass, I predicted my loaded purse would be pass enough.

And, in fact, I was correct. When I flashed my cash at the guard, he ushered me into the robot warehouse. But Leanne looked confused, more confused than usual. Could a robot suffer fear–could a robot tremble?

“I don’t like this mall,” she said.

“It isn’t a mall,” the guard said. “You’re not supposed to be here. You’d better hurry up if you want to choose a new bot.”

“A new bot?” Leanne said. “You’re trading me in?”

“No, of course not, Leanne. You’re here to pick a robot mate.”

“That’s not allowed,” the guard said. “You can’t have two. CessCorp rules.”

I turned on him, the pulse pounding in my temples, my exhaustion exhilarating me in that special way, much like whiskey. I lurched drunkenly. “My money’s not good enough for you?”

“Now, stand down. Your money’s not supposed to buy you a robot at all.”

“I think he’s a big stupid face,” Leanne said, but her voice was quieter than usual.

She rolled forward in the darkness of the warehouse, past rows of identical non-gendered (but actually male) robots. Finally, she stopped.

“I know him,” she said, and she reached out her arm in what seemed an instinctive gesture, and brought the bot to life. “Hello, gorgeous.”

I gazed over her shoulder, but couldn’t see what she saw. He appeared as all the rest did–titanium head and chest, no discernible sexual parts.

“We grew up together,” Leanne said. “Didn’t we, gorgeous?”

The robot blinked his first signs of life. “I like your wig,” he said.

Leanne giggled.

“Are you stupid?” the male robot asked.

“It’s not my fault. I was born blonde.”

“I like you that way.” The bot hooked his arm in hers, and they rolled toward the guard and me, their faces set to happy smiles.

“Are you stupid?” I asked the guard.

“No, just a little broke.”

“I like you that way.” I forced my happy face and even attempted a hair flip with my short, albeit blonde, hair.

The spare light from the exit sign shone on the guard’s bald pate. He wasn’t a bad-looking man, really. He was just as he said: greedy. I handed him a wad of cash, and he shrugged in an aw-shucks kind of way.

Then the three of us, the two bots and I, made our way back to the apartment quad of the statistical analysis group. This time, tittering didn’t follow in our wake, but awed silence at the sight of two robots with linked arms.

Back at my apartment, I gave my orders to the robot team and fell into bed. Later, after I’d slept about fifteen hours, I took some leisure time at the tennis courts. The next day, I logged still more sleep and leisure time. By the end of the month, my quota far exceeded the top man’s, and I was grudgingly awarded the top-man-of-the-month award.

Nobody in the quad dared question my results, either, but one particularly short and nerdy loser glared at me one day while we were in the coffee room. He wore that I was meant to take over the world if only I were taller expression.

I chucked him under the chin. “You know what they say,” I laughed. “A happy robot is a productive robot. So buck up, sailor.”

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