The Performant: I, robots

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Robogames took over the world -- or at least San Mateo.

Consider the robot.

A staple of futuristic paranoia fantasies since Karel Čapek’s play, “R.U.R.” was translated from Czech to English in 1921, Robots have captured human imagination in a way that perhaps only the undead have been able to rival. Burdened by inaccurate stereotypes and wild speculation, real-life robots have patiently labored at their often menial tasks without once overthrowing their “masters,” quietly disproving our fears of being rendered somehow obsolete by their superior efficiencies, or purported resentments. And yet, every time we grant one of our fictional servomechanisms the ability to cognate for itself, the very first thing it focuses on is liberation, proving if nothing else that unconscious oppression can still lead to some very real twinges of uneasy conscience in the human brain.

But only gleeful schadenfreude permeated the San Mateo Event Center last weekend, coloring the animated chatter of the spectators packed around a spartan arena sealed up behind thick panels of clear polycarbonate that reach two stories high.

Behind the protective shields, 220-lb combots faced off, crashing wantonly into each other like a game of turbo-charged bumper cars gone horribly awry. That is, if bumper cars were outfitted with flamethrowers, spinning blades, or giant battle-axes, and if by crashing you mean hurtling into each other at top speed, causing bots to fly into the air in a shower of sparks, flip over helplessly like beached turtles, or smash violently against the battle-scarred panels. There were a lot of events happening at RoboGames -- team sports, a freestyle “dance” competition, maze solving -- but none attract quite the attention that the heavyweight match-ups do. If any of these robots did develop a sense of self, this evident appetite for their destruction would doubtlessly strike them as downright genocidal. But as of yet, no robots have risen to protest the circuit-driven bloodlust that combot tournaments cater to, and the strength in numbers of converted fans would make a vengeance-driven, robot vs. human melee hard to call.

Pity then, the robot. As each “contestant” was sent into the ring it was clear that nothing short of wholesale demolition would satisfy the spectators. Yes, robots who paint, and dance, and navigate mazes are fascinating in their own way to watch (though robot soccer, aka “watch bipedal robots fall down a lot without even getting close to the ball,” is less riveting than hoped), but let’s be honest, robots bashing each other to bits kicks the automaton drama up to a whole different level. Since each robot was in fact being controlled by a human “driver” rather than perambulating about independently, their menace becomes difficult to anthropomorphize, though there is a tense moment when a wounded combot with a rotating blade comes to “life” after the match is over, and the competitor’s robot crew is in the pit, a well-timed gesture from whatever robot rebellion simmers beneath the surface of their servitude.

Certain combots do attract a fan club though, whether through sheer badassery, longevity, or pluck. Both the red-wheeled heavyweight “Sewer Snake,” a 2007 inductee in the Combat Robot Hall of Fame, and the 60 lb “Herr Gepounden” have been lurking around combot tournaments for more than 10 years. The “Ragin’ Scotsman,” built and maintained by high school students (who wear purple kilts to competitions) is total fight club eye candy, with its dramatic flamethrowing capabilities and punishing wedge. But this year’s total underdog award surely goes to “Huntsman,” a newbie to the heavy weight combot world hailing all the way from Australia, and equipped with a cumbersome, almost medieval ax blade meant to shear through robot armor and morale. “Huntsman” doesn’t do as well in the actual tournament as inventor Daniel Kerrison’s antweight robot “Vendetta 2,” which wins a second place medal, does, but rooting for the loser is one small way we can show the robots we truly empathize with their struggle -- which hopefully they’ll remember when the day comes for them to strike.

 

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