Bot of Course, My Dear

At the first ROBOlympics, the combat robots are thrilling, but those cute, humanoid Robo-Ones steal the show

The sound of combat robots is unmistakable: the high-pitched scream of vertical saw blades dragging across metal hulls; the ominous hiss and thud of hydraulic hammers finding purchase against the arena floor; the shriek of bolts straining beyond their manufacturer's limit; the startling crack of dismembered armature careening into the thick walls of a custom ring; the snarl and rumble of engines built to withstand the onslaught giving way under 300 pounds of antagonistic machinery; and the inevitable good-time roar of a crowd still hungry for more. It is a common chorus along the shores of our delicately hued bay, where technology and industry have long been coupled for the pleasure of mechanical blood sport.

"I will never get used to that," says Hillary Drew, still cringing from the fatal blow delivered by a heavyweight bot in the combat region of Herbst Pavilion, where the first ROBOlympicsis in its second 12-hour day. "Even if I see it coming, the noise: It's just too much for me."

Southern-born Drew, who admits to having a somewhat "delicate temperament," reinserts her custom-made earplugs and pulls her hand-knit sweater more tightly around her body. A tall man carrying his infant daughter through the crowd stops in front of Drew to watch a microbot soccer game being played on the pavilion floor in a tiny arena designated by duct tape. The baby, appearing utterly at ease corked by two earplugs and a pacifier, doesn't so much as flutter an eyelash at the apocalyptic symphony being conducted just six yards behind her.

Robo-One ORF-A1 (standing) can walk, 
strike, bend, crouch, and get up when it falls 
Jillian Northrup
Robo-One ORF-A1 (standing) can walk, strike, bend, crouch, and get up when it falls over.

"See, that's a San Francisco baby," says Drew. "Imperturbable. My son is like that. Since we moved here [from Georgia] we've been to over a half-dozen robot shows. Fights. Battles. Whatever you want to call them. I don't know. This is better, though. At least there are other things here. Educational things. The space elevator is more my speed."

The comparatively tranquil "Space Elevator Ribbon Climbing" competition involves robots no larger than 10 centimeters long pulling themselves up a 30-millimeter-wide polyethylene ribbon strung from the balcony. For all its seeming lack of spectacle, the challenge is the focus of a sizable crowd.

The premise: Space is a mere 100 miles away, but the cost of getting there by space shuttle averages $10,000 per kilogram. An elevator like the "HighLift System" proposed by the Institute for Scientific Researchwould enable the human race to work more often and more effectively in space.

"Combots are fine," says 36-year-old software consultant Emiel Khaykin. "But after awhile a wedge is a wedge is a wedge. In the arena, the wedge wins. In space, the technology becomes really creative and exciting. Like the Mars Exploration Rovers and the proposed Entomopters, which look like dragonflies and will be launched from the land rovers to fly over rough terrain. I admit it, I dream of robot swarms. On every planet. And, yes, I used to masturbate to pictures of Princess Leia."

Before I can decide which image is more disturbing, the soothing words of ROBOlympics founder David Calkinscome to mind: "People who think robots will take over the world have no idea just how fragile robots really are."

Despite all precautions, only 10 of the 13 Robo-Oneentries from Japan arrived operational, but they are, without a doubt, the pride of ROBOlympics. Small, bipedal, and humanoid, Robo-One robots are created and exhibited to spread the "pleasure of coexistence together with robots."

It is a classically Japanese sentiment. In contrast to the United States, where robots were first met with suspicion by the workforce and readily cast as villains by artists and film directors, the robot was immediately embraced as hero, companion, and helpmate in Japan, a nation that even now lovingly refers to itself as robotto okoku, or the "Robot Kingdom." Shinto tradition, which imbues inanimate objects such as samurai swords and industrial tools with souls, may be the source of Japan's playful relationship to robots, but the current generation points to manga as its influence.

"We grew up with robots as heroes in our cartoons," says Jin Santo, a Canadian resident who is the only Robo-One builder in North America. "The robots imprinted on our brains."

Without the resources at the disposal of his Japanese counterparts, Santo was forced to turn his basement into a small factory, learning to anodize metal in crockpots, build his own grinders to cut metal according to intricate patterns, and refurbish and recycle parts from junkyards. The result is ORF-A1, a 15-inch-tall purple biped that walks, strikes, bends, crouches, and gets up when it falls over.

"It is still a baby," says Santo with a proud smile. "It takes baby steps. Not very strong, but the strongest in North America."

Compared even to the boa-wearing Ziggy -- the Bay Area's favorite hexapod and four-time walker champion, which dances on command -- ORF-A1 is elegant. And elegance is largely what Robo-One competitors are judged upon. Even during Robo-One wrestling competitions, agility and showmanship are rated along with power and combat skills. The result is that, when performing, the robots take on unmistakable personalities. HR9Bis extremely fast and single-minded, but somewhat ridiculous as it bends its knees in an attempt to maintain its center of gravity while moving as quickly as it can. HR4, a champion fighter in Japan, is scruffy with a tiny foam head that looks like an afterthought, but it has an extended arm reach and a hard, strong uppercut that levels competitors. Yokazuma, which looks like it could have sprung from the pages of a comic book, is as fearless as a bull and seems to have the same power. A-DO, which wears a scuba mask, is more of a lover than a fighter, offering up dance moves that make its creator, Takuo Moriguchi, blush.

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