The Sly History Of Robots, Pre-Frankenstein To Post-Tesla

Robots have always fascinated us. In fiction or in real life, they crossed our path, for better or for worse. But where do they really come from?

Fritz Lang's 1927 movie Metropolis
Fritz Lang's 1927 movie Metropolis
Nicolas Dufour

LAUSANNE â€" Whether it's a car that drives itself, a flying-saucer-like vacuum that takes care of the dusting while we’re at work, or a kitchen assistant that orders food supplies online, the rise of the robots is upon us.

At public health facilities, there are even robots acting as nurses and entertainers. Though various forms of android machines have been around for years, we are now getting a clearer picture of what life with robots will be like in the future.

Scientific researchers are redoubling their efforts, industrial firms are increasing their investments and as a result, today’s robots are increasingly effective in a variety of tasks. So effective, in fact, that countless jobs appear to be at risk. It seems every few months, a new study comes out predicting the elimination of entire job sectors, swallowed up by this nimble machinery.

Unquestionably, the story of robots is one of the most complex and subtle in the history of human innovation, for at least three reasons. First, defining a robot becomes increasingly difficult as technology evolves. Second, there is no objective, agreed-upon moment in time when robots emerged. Finally, for decades robots have been more closely tied to fiction than any other area of engineering,

What is a robot?

To define a robot might seem difficult, if not impossible. The picture of Asimo, Honda’s slightly limping humanoid robot, is definitely too reductive.

Nowadays, a robot can be a vacuum, and so work as a street-cleaner, but it can also be a mine-clearer, conduct soil analyzes for agriculture and even perform surgery â€" well, almost. Today’s "bots" are also those millions of software programs performing simultaneous tasks, including spamming or raking up the bowels of the internet. Engineering is fusing artificial intelligence with the most sophisticated information management systems. A machine with human-like arms and legs is nothing more than a variation on the wide-ranging robot spectrum.

But when did robots begin to "live" with humans? In his careful work Robots And Avatars, Jean-Claude Heudin, a specialist in the science of complex systems, makes a reference to Ovid’s myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, in which the sculptor fell so deeply in love with his creation that Venus brought her to life. This powerful parable already lays bare the issue of having feelings for a thing without life or emotion. Even in ancient fables, the notion of the "almost human" blends imagery, desire and divine intervention. On that last point, scandal later erupted over the fact that with robots, it was no longer a divinity giving life, but man, who thought of himself as God. Frankenstein’s damnation.

Automatons to automobiles

At least the historical thread running through the story of robots is easy to untangle. There were the superb 18-century automatons, such as those created by Jaquet-Droz, true masterpieces of clockwork precision from the Neuchâtel territory. In a 1774 advertisement for an automaton called "La Musicienne," an exhibition hall boasted of the number of tasks the beauty in the blue dress could complete, noting that "her throat rises and falls so regularly that you would think she's breathing." This thirst to sow confusion over what is alive and what is inanimate, or artificial, has never been quenched: Consider the trickery in the case of the Baron of Kempelen’s chess-playing robot, which hid a real human being inside.

In the 19th century, automatons became popular with the general public; they demonstrated the genius of clock-making, they became a form of entertainment. It’s similar to what happens with today’s tech products: In addition to their practical functions, they’re filled with amusing extras, gadgets and promises that make consumers mouths water.

A real milestone came in 1954, when two engineers presented the "Unimate," the first industrial robot. With its automated arm, the robot quickly caught the attention of the automotive industry, which relied increasingly on fake humans carrying out single and later multiple tasks. The pioneering firm for these automatons has since been acquired by the Swiss firm Staübli.

After decades of trial and error, the time for robots has finally come.

Valéry Bonneau, who has a degree in automation, published a book a few months ago called My Colleague is a Robot. In it, he reviews today’s main types of machines, from the Australian Ladybird to the Robothespian from Los Angeles, which is already the darling of industry events. Bonneau presents new inventions by category, and the fullest section at the moment is the one with personal assistance robots, as well as those used in hospitals.

Weight of cultural history

A single fact is illustrative of the rich cultural history of robots: The very word, "robot," comes from a work of fiction. The Czech writer Karel Capel is always cited as the source, without people knowing his play. But his work is, in fact, the source of the word "robot," which comes from the Czech work robota, meaning "chore."

Written in 1920, Capel’s science fiction play, called R.U.R, Rossum’s Universal Robots, was an instant success, performed in the major cities of the West. It’s worth reading these philosophical dialogues between the robot manufacturers and their machines, who attack them in a rebellion and declare their victory over the universe before considering how they will survive in the long term.

In 1927, the terrible metallic master in Fritz Lang's movie Metropolis illustrated the enslavement of the proletariat. After that, a slew of robot characters, frequently depressed, entered the mainstream.

Robots had been through so much, even long before they entered our apartments.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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