Weird Science: Flesh-Eating Robots Revisited

by Sue Lange

Back in 2009, I reported on the flesh-eating robots. The headlines at the time were all a-buzz with something that seemed straight out of Hollywood. Something that could mindlessly process human beings and then serve us up as soylent green if it so desired. I reassured the quaking readers that Ecobot was designed for vegetal flesh. Or so said damage control after Fox spread the news about the latest flesh-eating robot project.

We all quickly returned to our normally complacent lives, secure in the knowledge that this new tech would never be used against us. But not so fast. What about this interesting gizmo developed back in 2008: I wouldn’t exactly call these things robots, though. They seem like regular ol’ appliances.

The guy in the video’s absolutely right, the robot of our imagination is probably never going to exist. Oh there will be toys and sex dolls, surely. But we don’t really need autonomous, thinking things walking around and mucking up the environment. We already have humans for that.

I think, though, a robot is more than what they’ve got there. Artificial intelligence alone doesn’t make a robot. IMHO. Without motility, a robot is just a smart machine. In the case of the above, a smart garbage disposal.

The mousetrap table. Don’t you just love the line about how these contraptions were designed for entertainment as well as utility? I really must get one of these before I throw my next cocktail party.

Back to Ecobot. They’re up to Ecobot III (pictured above) now at Bristol Robotics Laboratory in the UK. There was at one time a video of Eco in action, but it wasn’t particularly helpful. The video’s gone from the site, so the best I can do is describe what I saw. I could tell the robot’s lines filling with, or dispensing, liquid. And Eco moved along its track across the table, but that was about it. I really had no idea what was going on.

At that time I wasn’t sure I’d call Ecobot III a robot anymore than I’d call the coffee table mousetrap a robot. It had motility. Sort of. It didn’t seem very autonomous. And scary it wasn’t. The important thing was, that one day we will have a contraption that uses garbage to fuel itself in a self-sustaining way. How the robot looks, how fast it is, or how humanlike it is, is superfluous.

Back when they were still working on Ecobot II, they coined the term “artificial symbiosis” for the action of its “onboard microbial” system. Eco II could digest organic materials, just like in real symbiosis between human guts and the e-coli living there. That’s a pretty cool idea right there. Not sure we need motility to take advantage of that. That’s the old compost pile model. Works pretty well. Been working pretty well since life was first invented. I guess the difference now is that we’re going to have this little “symbot” in our closet, ready for the coffee grounds. And the Arm & Hammer of course, otherwise the processing will probably stink up the joint.

Even though it turns out Ecobot IS consuming animal remains, I’m still not worried. Until you have a quick-moving robot able to cruise the landscape picking and choosing what it’s going to consume, we have nothing to fear. But when the day comes that you’ve got walking, talking, and loafing flesh-eating robots, can the Terminator be far behind?

Sue Lange

Sue Lange’s latest ebook, Tritcheon Hash, is full of lapses of logic and weird science. “It’s a wild, good read.” Get your copy right here at Book View Cafe.

This essay was first posted on December 8, 2011 at the Singularity Watch blog.




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