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April 15, 2010

Geek Out!: Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto

Posted: 01:06 PM ET
ROBOTS!!!
ROBOTS!!!

Editor's note: Geek Out! posts feature the latest and most interesting in nerd-culture news. From scifi and fantasy to gadgets and science, if you can geek out over it you can find it on Geek Out! Look for Geek Out! posts on CNN's SciTech blog.

Every year at about this time, downtown Atlanta, Georgia, is filled to the brim with young, colorfully costumed robot enthusiasts in town for the FIRST competition. These kids are on the cusp of a robotics revolution, because the machines are truly hip right now; they can be found adorning store shelves, song lyrics and snarky T-shirts.

As long as humans have walked the earth, it seems they have dreamed of creating automated machines that can get work done - often, work they hate doing or find repetitive or dangerous - while silently hoping that the 'bots won't get all passive-agressive about it and start starting something. And what if they take over? We're in the midst of National Robotics Week, so let's delve into popular culture and take a look at this fear and fascination with simmering robot passions.

The desire to make automated machines goes back as far as human history itself. Historians and mythologists will point to symbolic robots like Talos, a bronze man incorporated into Greek mythology who was built to protect Zeus' love Europa in Crete. He was both stronger than a man and also able to take torture that people would find intolerable.

Much later on, Leonardo da Vinci was experimenting with an automated humanoid robot that looked like it was a knight's armor. There's a long history of robotic aspirations throughout the years, but the point is, humans want to make machines that kind of look like them and can do things. And when these robots dip into the uncanny valley, where they sort of look human and sort of not, that's when they get a little creepy. It was roboticist Masahiro Mori, in fact, who coined the term in a 1970 writing. And thus, humans grapple with the idea of a robot that is almost human in contrast to a robot that is cute and charming (a la R2-D2 from Star Wars, Johnny 5 from Short Circuit and Wall-E).

Many robots nowadays are designed to be cute for this very reason. CNN iReporter Fatina Chau sent us a photo of an adorable and hardworking robot being tested in Shanghai, China, while another iReporter, Veera K., showed us a robot that dances to cute music while serving food in a restaurant in Bangkok, Thailand. Visitors order their food on a computer panel. These robots aren't threatening, and yet the latter robot could threaten to replace waiters. It's no wonder humanoids are ambivalent about their creations.

Popular culture portrays robots as scary when needed. On TV, Craig Ferguson (or Craigy Ferg, as he's known on the Twitters) lampooned his show's budgetary constraints by creating an ongoing comedy segment featuring a robot skeleton sidekick. This robot is a bit scary-looking, but it's learning. This of course puts the contrast with a human sidekick in stark relief.

We love and hate our robots, and that's why we're always doing the robot dance and singing along to that song "Mr. Roboto" from Styx's 1983 album "Kilroy was here." The song prominently features robots, including the oft-repeated phrase "Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto." If you're following the plot, Kilroy escapes from prison by pretending to be a robot prison guard. Also, one of the albums on frequent rotation in my playlist is 2002's "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots" by The Flaming Lips, which very specifically delineates a fight against pink robots. Although the songs themselves aren't necessarily following the same kind of "Kilroy" story, the robot-esque battle depicted on the cover is attention-getting.

We love our robots but secretly fear and loathe them. So, take a moment right now - yes, right now - to stop everything and do a little robot dance, and then tell us: What do you think?

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Filed under: Geek Out! • iReport • technology


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