Friday, 24 October 2008

James May's Big Ideas - Man Machine

For James May, the idea of robots living side by side with humans is a childhood dream; for me, it was something of a childhood nightmare. I cannot exactly recall what made me frightened of robots, but I do remember that it was, of all things, an episode of the Rugrats that kept me awake at night in fear of a robot attack.
In an episode of his Big Ideas series entitled “Man-Machine”, May explores the evolution of robots. His journey takes him to the obvious places like Japan, and the not so obvious Disneyland. The first robot he encounters is an exoskeleton that gives the wearer extra strength, as demonstrated when a five foot eight Japanese woman lifts May clear off a bed. Aesthetically, it was not the most pleasing, but as a functioning machine for which every movement could be seen, there was something almost beautiful in the design.
Easily the sleekest, best looking robot is Asimo, who resides at Disneyland, and is the cute little chap we saw in the Honda adverts not so long ago. He can walk. It sounds mundane, routine, but not to Asimo. He is the first robot to walk like a human being, albeit one who has perhaps just had an injury in the groin area. Asimo can also walk up and down stairs with perfect balance, and he can run. For 0.8 of a second, both his feet are off the ground while he runs. It was impressive, and also slightly frightening, if only for the thought of all that technology moving at a fast pace.
From the sweet to the scary, May meets a robot who looks exactly like his creator - well, apart from the eyes that look like they belong to an Ood from Doctor Who. That was one robot I really would have liked to see the skeleton of, not only for the mechanical brilliance, but to take away the sheer eeriness of a robot with facial muscles. The creator developed it to explore the relationship between humans and humanoid robots. If May’s reaction was anything to go by, it would probably lead to robo-racism should they be put into production.
In central Europe, May teaches Asimo’s smiley German cousin to recognise a Mini Cooper (the British version), and is doubtful when told that Asimo will not take over the world. So much for not mentioning the war, James.
Away from Top Gear, where every attempt May makes to explain some motorized marvel is shouted down by his co-hosts, here he has free reign to indulge his boyish, and frankly rather infectious, enthusiasm for all things mechanical, and he does so in a way that is intelligible without being patronising.
Although May concludes that the future will depend on virtual and digital rather than nuts and bolts, he remains ever hopeful of one day having a robot to get him another beer. Even I, a self-confessed robophobe, would not mind having an Asimo in my house to do my bidding; along with a Dalek to sort out burglars, hoodies, and chavas; and a WALL-E to sort out my rubbish. I’m sure they’ll all get along swimmingly.

For the record, I know that Daleks are not robots, but are in fact aliens inside a suit of armour, so don’t bother pointing that out.

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