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January 24, 2002

When Nerds Collide: Bots in the Ring


Daniel Longmire/BattleBots
In the television land of the BattleBots, the goal is to be the last machine standing. (Well, rolling.)

Other Resources

Several TV shows feature competing robots: "BattleBots," on Comedy Central; "Robot Wars," on TNN; and "Robotica," on The Learning Channel.

"Robot Riots: The Good Guide to Bad Bots," by Alison Bing and Erin Conley (Barnes & Noble Books, 2001), an overview of fighting bots and the shows that have them.

The sites below provide information on robot competitions:
Information on robot sumo from the San Francisco Robotics Society of America."/
A league for competitions using Lego robots."
A roundup of robot sites maintained by Arrick Robotics, which sells material to robot hobbyists.


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Photo: Televox plays bridge, Pasadena, California, 1928
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Daniel Longmire/Battlebots
Tazbot, built by Donald Huston of Team Mutant Robots in San Diego, is in the superheavyweight class.

David Calkins
A robot called Aoi Ryu ("Blue Dragon" in Japanese) was entered by David Calkins, president of the Robotics Society of America, in sumo competitions in San Francisco, San Jose, and Washington.

AT first glance, it's obvious why "BattleBots," the robot fighting show on Comedy Central, would draw television viewers like passers-by to a car crash.

It is, after all, a series of staged battles between remote-controlled machines equipped with spinning blades, ramming spears and swinging maces. It has noise, wreckage, pseudo- sports commentary modeled on professional wrestling and the all-too-obvious décolletage of Carmen Electra, proffered to the camera as she asks a robot designer, after a bout, how it felt to have his weapon lopped off.

In short, it is mildly nasty, mechanically brutish and thoroughly tasteless — the perfect television show.

And yet, talking to one of the show's creators, you get the idea that the whole BattleBot universe is a giant math class, much more effective than those that take place in a classroom. Trey Roski, president and chief executive of BattleBots, would have you believe that the show is almost nothing but redeeming social value.

"To me `BattleBots' is about education," Mr. Roski said in a telephone interview. "You learn pi building a BattleBot, you learn it forever. We're teaching kids to think."

About what? Ms. Electra or equations for torque? Are robot battles on television simply a junkyard circus with models, or is bot vs. bot a test of intelligence and engineering skill? If machines ever do become intelligent and self-conscious, will they revere their fighting ancestors or immediately disassemble themselves out of sheer embarrassment at their past?

These are not insignificant questions. There are now at least three television shows with battling robots, including two versions of "Robot Wars" on TNN and "Robotica" on The Learning Channel. In Japan, robot sumo is so popular that the championship draws thousands of people.

David Calkins, president of the Robotics Society of America and an unabashed proselytizer for robot competition, said of the world of fighting bots, "In 10 years, it will be bigger than Nascar."

That sounds silly. But make the number 20 years and think of what happened with personal computers between 1980 and 2000. It makes you think that at the very least, fighting robots are not going to go away.

One thing is certain: making robots compete against one another is irresistible to their builders. "Robot Riots: The Good Guide to Bad Bots" lists almost 60 robot competitions. Robots compete in volleyball, soccer, hockey, obstacle courses, maze running and other events. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration sponsors robot competitions for children, as does the BattleBots organization.

Some robot competitions involve machines that are designed for specific tasks and include only transistors and diodes. Some of the machines are run by humans using remote control devices; others are true, autonomous robots, programmed for different tactics.

None of the machines look like Arnold Schwarzenegger in "The Terminator" or even like humans at all. Some do indeed look fearsome, with visible weapons like spikes or saws or hammers. Others look innocent on the surface. Ziggo, a BattleBot built by Jonathan Ridder, shows no weapons but rotates at very high speeds, 160 miles an hour, slamming its opponents into walls and course hazards like circular saws that pop up out of the floor. Mr. Calkins said he particularly admired Mecha Tentoumushi, built by Lisa Winter, which looked like a ladybug but clamped down on opponents, trapping them against an internal grinder.

Mr. Calkins competes in robot sumo in the United States and teaches the sport at the Exploratorium, a museum in San Francisco. He is also a part-time judge for BattleBots. He said Japanese competitors may spend up to $20,000 on a sumo robot. The devices, which according to official rules must weigh "less than three kilograms" (about six and a half pounds) compete in a ring, or dohyo, and try to push each other off. Weapons are not allowed, and both remote-controlled and autonomous robots are used. Most have vacuums to hold them to the surface, and the pull is so strong, said Mr. Calkins, that upside-down sumo matches have been held at the Exploratorium.

To Mr. Calkins, robot sports in all their forms are about design and thinking. Age, weight, physical handicaps — none are significant. And watching a show like "BattleBots," you can quickly become annoyed with the announcers' inane chatter and puerile double-entendres and find yourself wishing for some real information.

But perhaps the real appeal of robot battles is fairly simple, having less to do with Ms. Electra, intelligence and the intricacies of robot design than with the love-hate relationship consumers have with technology. With computers, hand-held locators guided by satellites, or Palm organizers, it is always a difficult question as to which desire is more fervent — to buy the glorious silvery thing that will transport you to gadget heaven or to deconstruct it as violently as possible when it fails to be the mechanism of your dreams. The fighting robots operate in a world in which you don't have to choose. You get to have your bot and wreck it, too. The competitions celebrate and destroy the machines, which are praised and pulverized.

Mr. Calkins agreed that the appeal of violence can't be underestimated. "People like violence," he said. "Any sporting event is violent. Even in bowling there's violence. There's pins being hurt."

Yes, but it's not as much fun to see bowling pins fall as it is to watch a saw blade chew up a complicated machine. Now if instead of pins there were malfunctioning laptops, that might offer a taste of revenge.

I asked Mr. Calkins whether the designers like to see the machines get wrecked. He hesitated. Well, he said, "they really like to see the other robot get wrecked."

It all comes down to guilt-free violence. This is nothing new. I've just been reading a new translation of "Beowulf" by Seamus Heaney. Of course it's a wonderful literary classic, but I have to say that what really caught my attention was the moment when Beowulf ripped Grendel's arm out of its socket. The explicit description of skin and bone and ligament tearing apart left little to the imagination. Then, when he cut off Grendel's mother's head, the steaming blood of the demon melted the blade of his sword.

You can't feel very sorry for demons, but you don't have to feel sorry at all for machines. The most fun may be smashing them yourself. (If you've never taken a hammer to a hair dryer or a radio — or better yet, an old computer — I highly recommend it.) But it's almost as good to watch them wreck each other, and then discuss, with the clinical detachment of an engineer, whether a vicious blade or a mighty hammer was the better design. Maybe someday there will be robot football, and the teams will actually be able to destroy the opposing players. If minimalist robot sumo can fill a stadium, machine football — to the death — is a guaranteed winner. And it's O.K. They're just machines.

Mr. Calkins also suggested that viewers should not be content with television, which does not do justice to the actual events. The good sportsmanship and helpfulness of the contestants to each other is remarkable, he said, which is nice.

But what is really great, he said, is the aroma of mechanized combat: "There's no smell like it. It's kind of like walking into an automobile garage, but different. There's gasoline, metal being cut, the smell of sweat and excitement, and the fires."

You don't get any of that with football or basketball, although I think nobody would be that surprised if it were introduced into hockey games.

With fighting robots, the contestants sometimes literally burst into flames.

Now that's entertainment.

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