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Out of Control

When Mark Pauline offers you his hand in greeting, you get to shake his toes. Years ago Pauline blew off his fingers messing around with homemade rockets. The surgeons reconstituted a hand of sorts from his feet parts, but Pauline's lame hand still slows him down.

Pauline builds machines that chew up other machines. His devices are intricate and often huge. His smallest robot is bigger than a man; the largest is two-stories high when it stretches its neck. Outfitted with piston-driven jaws and steam-shovel arms, his machines exude biological vibes.

Pauline's maimed hand often has trouble threading a bolt to keep his monsters together. To quicken repairs he installed a top-of-the-line industrial lathe outside his bedroom door and stocked his kitchen area full of welding equipment. It only takes him a minute or two to braze the broken pneumatic limbs of his iron beasts. But his own hand is a hassle. He wants to replace it with a hand from a robot.

Pauline lives in a warehouse at the far end of a San Francisco street that dead-ends under a highway overpass. His pad is flanked by a bunch of grungy galvanized iron huts decorated with signs advertising car-body repair. A junkyard just outside Pauline's warehouse is piled as high as the chainlink fence with rusty skeletons of dead machines; one hunk is a jet engine. The yard is usually eerily vacant. When the postman hops out of his jeep to deliver Pauline's mail, the guy turns off his motor and locks the jeep door.

Pauline started out as a self-described juvenile delinquent, later graduating to a young adult doing "creative vandalism." Everyone agrees that Mark Pauline's pranks are above average, even for an individualist's town like San Francisco. As a 10-year-old kid Pauline used a stolen acetylene torch to decapitate the globe of a gumball machine. As a young adult he got into the art of "repurposing" outdoor billboards: late at night he altered their lettering into political messages with creative applications of spray paint. He made news recently when his ex-girlfriend reported to the police that while she was away for a weekend he covered her car with epoxy and then feathered it, windshields and all.

The devices Pauline builds are at once the most mechanical and the most biological of machines. Take the Rotary Mouth Machine: two hoops studded with sharklike teeth madly rotate in intersecting orbits, each at an angle to the other, so that their "bite" circles round and round. The spinning jaw can chew up a two-by-four in a second. Usually it nibbles the dangling arm of another machine. Or take the Inchworm, a modified farm implement powered by an automobile engine mounted on one end that cranks around six pairs of oversized tines to inch it along. It creeps in the most inefficient yet biological way. Or, the Walk-and-Peck machine. It uses its onboard canister of pressurized carbon dioxide to pneumatically chip though the asphalt by hammering its steel head into the ground, as if it were a demented 500 pound "roadpecker." "Most of my machines are the only machines of their type on Earth. No one else in their right mind would make them because there is no practical reason for humans to make them," Pauline claims, without a hint of a smile.

A couple of times a year, Pauline stages a performance for his machines. His debut in 1979 was called "Machine Sex." During the show his eccentric machines ran into each other, consumed each other, and melded into broken heaps. A few years later he staged a spectacle called "Useless Mechanical Activity," continuing his work of liberating machines into their own world. He's put on about 40 shows since, usually in Europe where, he says, "I can't be sued." But Europe's system of national support for the arts (Pauline calls it the Art Mafia) also supports these in-your-face performances.

In 1991 Pauline staged a machine circus in downtown San Francisco. On this night, several thousand fans dressed in punk black leather convened, entirely by word of mouth, at an abandoned parking lot squeezed under a freeway overpass ramp. In the makeshift arena, under the industrial glare of spotlights, ten or so mechanical animals and autonomous iron gladiators waited to demolish each other with flames and brute force.

The scale and spirit of the iron creatures on display brought to mind one image: mechanical dinosaurs without skin. The dinos poised in the skeletal power of hydraulic hoses, chained gears, and cabled levers. Pauline called them "organic machines."

These dinosaurs were not suffocating in a museum. Pauline had borrowed and stolen their parts from other machines, their power from automobiles, and had given them a meager kind of life to perform under the beams of searchlights stinking of hot ozone. Crash, rear up, jump, collide, live!

The unseated audience that night churned in the titanium glare. Loudspeakers (chosen for their gritty static) played an endless stream of recorded industrial noise. The grating broadcasts sometimes switched to tapes of radio call-in shows and other background sounds of an electronic civilization. The screeching was upstaged by a shrieking siren; the signal to start. The machines moved.

The next hour was pandemonium. A two-foot-long drill bit tipped the end of a brontosaurus-like creature's long neck. This nightmare of a dentist's drill was tapered like a bee's stinger. It went on a rampage and mercilessly drilled another robot. Wheeeezzz. The sound triggered toothaches. Another mad creature, the Screw Throwbot, comically zipped around, tearing up the pavement with an enormous racket. It was a ten-foot, one-ton steel sled carried by two steel corkscrew treads, each madly spinning auger 11/2 feet in diameter. It screwed across asphalt, skittering in various directions at 30 miles per hour. It was actually cute. Mounted on top was a mechanical catapult capable of hurling 50-lb. exploding firebombs. So while the Drill was stinging the Screw, the Screw was hurling explosives at a tower of pianos.

"It's barely controlled anarchy here," Pauline joked at one point to his all-volunteer crew. He calls his "company" the Survival Research Labs (SRL), a deliberately misleading corporate-sounding name. SRL likes to stage performances without official permits, without notification of the city's fire department, without insurance, and without advance publicity. They let the audience sit way too close. It looked dangerous. And it was.

A converted commercial lawn sprinkler -- the kind that normally creeps across grass blessing it with life -- giving water -- diabolically blessed the place with a shower of flames. Its rotating arms pumped fiery orange clouds of ignited kerosene fuel over a wide circle. The acrid, half-burnt smoke, trapped by the overhead freeway structure, choked the spectators. Then the Screw accidentally tipped over its fuel can, and the Sprinkler from Hell went out of commission. So the Flamethrower lit up to take up the slack. The Flamethrower was a steerable giant blower -- of the type used to air-condition a mid-town skyscraper -- bolted to a Mack truck engine. The truck motor twirled the huge cage-fan and pumped diesel fuel from a 55-gallon drum into the airstream. A carbon-arc spark ignited the air/fuel mixture and spewed it into a tongue of vicious yellow flame 50 feet long. It roasted the pile of 20 pianos.

Pauline could aim the dragon with a radio-control joystick from a model airplane. He turned Flamethrower's snout toward the audience, who ducked reflexively. The heat, even from 50 feet away, slapped the skin. "You know how it is," Pauline said later. "Ecosystems without predators become unstable. Well, these spectators have no predators in their lives. So that's what these machines are, that's their role. To interject predators into civilization."

SLR's machines are quite sophisticated, and getting more so. Pauline is always busy breeding new machines so that the ecology of the circus keeps evolving. Often he upgrades old models with new appendages. He may give the Screw Machine a pair of lobsterlike pincers instead of a buzz saw, or he welds a flamethrower to one arm of 25-foot-tall Big Totem. Sometimes he cross-fertilizes, swapping parts between two creatures. Other times he midwifes wholly new beings. At a recent show he unveiled four new pets: a portable lightning machine that spits 9-foot bolts of crackling blue lightning at nearby machines; a 120-decibel whistle driven by a jet engine; a military rail gun that uses magnetic propulsion to fire a burning comet of molten iron at 200 miles per hour, which upon impact explodes into a fine drizzle of burning droplets; and an advanced tele-presence cannon, a human/machine symbiont that lets a goggled operator aim the gun by turning his head to gaze at the target. It fires beer cans stuffed with concrete and dynamite detonators.

The shows are "art," and so are constantly underfunded; the admission barely pays for the sundry costs of a show -- for fuel, food for the workers, spare parts. Pauline candidly admits that some of the ancestors he cannibalized to procreate these monsters were stolen. One SRL crew member says that they like to put shows on in Europe because there is a lot of "Obtainium" there. What's Obtainium?: "Something that is easily obtained, easily liberated, or gotten for free." That which isn't made out of Obtainium is built from military surplus parts that Pauline buys by the truckload for $65 per pound from friendly downsizing military bases. He also scrounges the military for machine tools, submarine parts, fancy motors, rare electronics, $100,000-spare parts, and raw steel. "Ten years ago this stuff was valuable, important for national security and all that. Then suddenly it became worthless junk. Now I'm converting machines, improving them really, from things which once did 'useful' destruction into things that can now do useless destruction."

Several years ago, Pauline made a crablike robot that would scurry across the floor. It was piloted by a freaked-out guinea pig locked inside a tiny switch-laden cockpit. The robot was not intended to be cruel. Rather the idea was to explore the convergence of the organic and the machine. SRL inventions commonly marry hi-speed heavy metal and soft biological architecture. When turned on, the guinea pig robot teetered on the edge of chaos. In the controlled anarchy of the show, it was hardly noticed. Pauline: "These machines barely have enough control to be useful, but that's all the control that we need."

At the ground-breaking ceremony for the new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Pauline was invited to gather his machines on the empty downtown lot in order to "create a hallucination in broad daylight for a few minutes." His Shockwave Cannon wheeled about and exploded raw air. You could actually see the shockwave zip out of the muzzle. The Cannon halted rush-hour traffic as it rattled the windows of every car and skyscraper for blocks around. Pauline then introduced his Swarmers. These were waist-high cylindrical mobile robots that skittered around in a flock. Where the flock would go was anyone's guess; no one Swarmer directed the others; no one steered it. It was hardware heaven: machines out of control.

The ultimate aim of SRL is to make machines autonomous. "Getting some autonomous action, though, is really difficult," Pauline told me. Yet he is ahead of many heavily funded university labs in attempting to transfer control from humans to machines. His several-hundred-dollar swarming creatures -- decked out with recycled infrared sensors and junked stepped motors -- beat out the MIT robot lab in an informal race to construct the first autonomous swarming robots.

In the conflict many people see between nature-born and machine-made, Mark Pauline is on the side of the made. Pauline: "Machines have something to say to us. When I start designing an SRL show, I ask myself, what do these machines want to do? You know, I see this old backhoe that some red-neck is running everyday, maybe digging ditches out in the sun for the phone company. That backhoe is bored. It's ailing and dirty. We're coming along and asking it what it wants to do. Maybe it wants to be in our show. We go around and rescue machines that have been abandoned, or even dismembered. So we have to ask ourselves, what do these machines really want to do, what do they want to wear? So we think about color coordination and lighting. Our shows are not for humans, they are for machines. We don't ask how machines are going to entertain us. We ask, how can we entertain them? That's what our shows are, entertainment for machines."

Machines are something that need entertainment. They have their own complexity and their own agenda. By building more complex machines we are giving them their own autonomous behavior and thus inevitably their own purpose. "These machines are totally at ease in the world we have built for them," Pauline told me. "They act completely natural."

I asked Pauline, "If machines are natural, do they have natural rights?" "Big machines have a lot of rights," Pauline said. "I have learned respect for them. When one of them is coming toward you, they keep right on going. You need to get out of their way. That's how I respect them."

The problem with our robots today is that we don't respect them. They are stuck in factories without windows, doing jobs that humans don't want to do. We take machines as slaves, but they are not that. That's what Marvin Minsky, the mathematician who pioneered artificial intelligence, tells anyone who will listen. Minsky goes all the way as an advocate for downloading human intelligence into a computer. Doug Englebart, on the other hand, is the legendary guy who invented word processing, the mouse, and hypermedia, and who is an advocate for computers-for-the-people. When the two gurus met at MIT in the 1950s, they are reputed to have had the following conversation:

MINSKY: We're going to make machines intelligent. We are going to make them conscious!

ENGLEBART: You're going to do all that for the machines? What are you going to do for the people?

This story is usually told by engineers working to make computers more friendly, more humane, more people centered. But I'm squarely on Minsky's side -- on the side of the made. People will survive. We'll train our machines to serve us. But what are we going to do for the machines?

The total population of industrial robots working in the world today is close to a million. Nobody, except a crazy bad-boy artist in San Francisco, asks what the robots want; that's considered a silly, retrograde, or even sacrilegious sentiment.

It's true that 99 percent of these million "bots" are little more than glorified arms. Smart arms, as far as arms go. And tireless. But as the robots we hoped for, they are dumb, blind, and still nursing the wall plug.

Except for a few out-of-control robots of Mark Pauline, most muscle-bound bots of today are overweight, sluggish, and on the dole -- addicted to continuous handouts of electricity and brain power. It is a chore to imagine them as the predecessor of anything interesting. Add another arm, some legs, and a head, and you have a sleepy behemoth.

What we want is Robbie the Robot, the archetypal being of science fiction stories: a real free-ranging, self-navigating, auto-powered robot who can surprise.

Recently, researchers in a few labs have realized that the most expedient path to Robbie the Robot was to cut off the electrical plug of a stationary robot. Make "mobots" -- mobile robots. "Staybots" are okay, as long as the power and brains are fully contained in the arm. Any robot is better if it follows these two rules: move on your own; survive on your own. Despite his punk attitude and artistic sensibility, Pauline continues to build robots that often beat what the best universities of the world are doing. He uses discarded lab equipment from the very universities he's beating. A deep familiarity with the limits and freedoms of metal makes up for his lack of degrees. He doesn't use blueprints to build his organic machines. Just to humor an insistent reporter, Pauline scoured his workshop once to dig up ''plans" for a running machine he was creating. After twenty minutes of pawing around ("I know it was here last month"), he located a paper under an old 1984 phone book in the lower drawer of a beat-up metal desk. It was a pencil outline of the machine, a sketch really, with no technical specifications.

"I can see it in my head. I lay out the lines on a hunk of metal and just starting cutting," Pauline told me as he held an elegantly machined piece of aluminum about two inches thick, roughly in the shape of a Tyrannosaurus arm bone. Two others identical to it lay on the workbench. He was working on the fourth. Each would become one part of the four legs of a running machine, about the size of a mule.

Pauline's completed running machine doesn't really run. It walks fairly fast, lurching occasionally with surprising speed. No one has yet made a real running machine. A few years ago Pauline built a complicated four-legged giant walking machine. Twelve feet high, cube in shape, not very smart or nimble, but it did shuffle along slowly. Four square posts, as massive as tree trunks, became legs when energized by a clutter of hydraulic lines working in tandem with a humongous transmission. Like other SRL inventions, this ungainly beast was sort-of-steered by a radio-control unit designed for model cars. In other words the beast was a 2,000-pound dinosaur with a pea brain.

Despite millions of dollars in research funding, no hacker has been able to coax a machine to walk across a room under its own intellect. A few robots cross in the unreal time of days, or they bump into furniture, or conk out after three-quarters of the way. In December 1990, after a decade of effort, graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University's Field Robotics Center wired together a robot that slowly walked all the way across a courtyard. Maybe 100 feet in all. They named him Ambler.

Ambler was even bigger than Pauline's shuffling giant and was funded to explore distant planets. But CMU's mammoth prototype cost several million dollars of tax money to construct, while Pauline's cost several hundred dollars to make, of which 2/3 went for beer and pizza. The 19-foot-tall iron Ambler weighed 2 tons, not counting its brain which was so heavy it sat on the ground off to the side. This huge machine toddled in a courtyard, deliberating at each step. It did nothing else. Walking without tripping was enough after such a long wait. Ambler's parents applauded happily at its first steps.

Moving its six crablike legs was the easiest part for Ambler. The giant had a harder time trying to figure out where it was. Simply representing the terrain so that it could calculate how to traverse it turned out to be Ambler's curse. Ambler spends its time, not walking, but worrying about getting the layout of the yard right. "This must be a yard," it says to itself. "Here are possible paths I could take. I'll compare them to my mental map of the yard and throw away all but the best one." Ambler works from a representation of its environment that it creates in its mind and then navigates from that symbolic chart, which is updated after each step. A thousand-line software program in the central computer manages Ambler's laser vision, sensors, pneumatic legs, gears, and motors. Despite its two-ton, two-story-high hulk, this poor robot is living in its head. And a head that is only connected to its body by a long cable.

Contrast that to a tiny, real ant just under one of Ambler's big padded feet. It crosses the courtyard twice during Ambler's single trip. An ant weighs, brain and body, 1/100th of a gram -- a pinpoint. It has no image of the courtyard and very little idea of where it is. Yet it zips across the yard without incident, without even thinking in one sense.

Ambler was built huge and rugged in order to withstand the extreme cold and grit conditions on Mars, where it would not be so heavy. But ironically Ambler will never make it to Mars because of its bulk, while robots built like ants may.

The ant approach to mobots is Rodney Brooks's idea. Rather than waste his time making one incapacitated genius, Brooks, an MIT professor, wants to make an army of useful idiots. He figures we would learn more from sending a flock of mechanical can-do cockroaches to a planet, instead of relying on the remote chance of sending a solitary overweight dinosaur with pretensions of intelligence.

In a widely cited 1989 paper entitled "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control: A Robot Invasion of the Solar System," Brooks claimed that "within a few years it will be possible at modest cost to invade a planet with millions of tiny robots." He proposed to invade the moon with a fleet of shoe-box-size, solar-powered bulldozers that can be launched from throwaway rockets. Send an army of dispensable, limited agents coordinated on a task, and set them loose. Some will die, most will work, something will get done. The mobots can be built out of off-the-shelf parts in two years and launched completely assembled in the cheapest one-shot, lunar-orbit rocket. In the time it takes to argue about one big sucker, Brooks can have his invasion built and delivered.

There was a good reason why some NASA folks listened to Brooks's bold ideas. Control from Earth didn't work very well. The minute-long delay in signals between an Earth station and a faraway robot teetering on the edge of a crevice demand that the robot be autonomous. A robot cannot have a remotely linked head, as Ambler did. It has to have an onboard brain operating entirely by internal logic and guidance without much communication from Earth. But the brains don't have to be very smart. For instance, to clear a landing pad on Mars an army of bots can dumbly spend twelve hours a day scraping away soil in the general area. Push, push, push, keep it level. One of them wouldn't do a very even job, but a hundred working as a colony could clear a building site. When an expedition of human visitors lands later, the astronauts can turn off any mobots still alive and give them a pat.

Most of the mobots will die, though. Within several months of landing, the daily shock of frigid cold and oven heat will crack the brain chips into uselessness. But like ants, individual mobots are dispensable. Compared to Ambler, they are cheaper to launch into space by a factor of 1000; thus, sending hundreds of mobots is a fraction of the cost of one large robot.

Brooks's original crackpot idea has now evolved into an official NASA program. Engineers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are creating a microrover. The project began as a scale model for a "real" planet rover, but as the virtues of small, distributed effort began to dawn on everyone, microrovers became real things in themselves. NASA's prototype tiny bot looks like a very flashy six-wheeled, radio-controlled dune buggy for kids. It is, but it is also solar-powered and self-guiding. A flock of these microrovers will probably end up as the centerpiece of the Mars Environmental Survey scheduled to land in 1997.

Microbots are fast to build from off-the-shelf parts. They are cheap to launch. And once released as a group, they are out of control, without the need for constant (and probably misleading) supervision. This rough-and-ready reasoning is upside-down to the slow, thorough, in-control approach most industrial designers bring to complex machinery. Such radical engineering philosophy was reduced to a slogan: Fast, cheap, and out of control. Engineers envisioned fast, cheap, and out-of-control robots ideal for: (1) Planet exploration; (2) Collection, mining, harvesting; and (3) Remote construction.