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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.