"The Great Robot Race"
Are you one of those people who names your car?
I'm not. I don't have a car. Which is possibly why I name my plants: Pinky, Goldie, Rabbi Shulman, Sparky and Juanita. Ultimately, the christening speaks to the bonds we form with the outside world. For me, woman to nature; for the folks in "The Great Robot Race," man to machine.
The Nova special charts the course a series of teams take to get to "The Great Robot Race." Roboticists toil over their creations, investing sweat, money, time and tears in machines that have a greater chance of being destroyed than actually completing the race. As the documentary unfolds, the robots start to grow on you. Stanford University's robot Stanley bears a striking resemblance to Herbie the Lovebug, while robot Team Dad has a decidedly disco vibration. The team members birth the machines slowly, recording their unmanned steps like proud parents in anticipation of making it to the final Grand Challenge.
To what end? That is an interesting question. The race is sponsored by the defense company DARPA. Twenty teams vie for qualifying spots in the main race and an opportunity to win millions of dollars to develop unmanned vehicles for the Department of Defense. Autonomous vehicles that can drive by themselves, think for themselves, and, in war, perhaps even kill for themselves, all the while cheating death with their skin made of metal and organs made of circuitry.
The race takes the machines through 132 miles of brutal desert terrain. The circuitous obstacle course of sand, coursing through the Mojave Desert, is the penultimate opportunity for the machines to demonstrate their agility and speed. With staring vision that approximates human eyesight, brains made of Pentium chips, and nervous systems guided by GPS, these machines represent the future of military technology. In ten years the Pentagon hopes to convert one-third of its military vehicles to unmanned operations.
Of course these machines can also be used to clean up industrial disasters like Chernobyl but the prize is one sponsored by a defense company. I am not sure how I feel about naming machines that are being created to potentially harm people, or, more importantly the growing affinity I felt for them as "The Great Robot Race" progressed. I'm going to let you draw your own conclusions. Ultimately, I think the journey is less about machine versus nature and more about the evolving and complex relationship between humans and the machines we create.