/ 19 October 2018

Eish, robot: The road to mecha

(Graphic by John McCann)
(Graphic by John McCann)

Not all of the side hustles of the average tech billionaire are batshit crazy. They are as varied as they are ambitious, and some are even intended to save humanity — either from some external threat, or from itself.

Going to space is the de rigueur. Virgin’s Richard Branson, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and SpaceX’s Elon Musk all have their eye on getting a slice of the pie in the sky. If there’s a 21st-century space race, it’s between that lot.

Others have their feet on the ground. Bill Gates has his Microsoft billions aimed at health issues like malaria.

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Inventor Dean Kamen wanted to solve transportation woes by creating the self-balancing two-wheeled Segway scooters. (And, to be fair, he has improved the lives of shopping mall security guards everywhere.) He’s since moved on to lower-tech endeavours such as water purifiers for the developing world, and higher-tech projects like prosthetic arms with fingers sensitive enough that they can can pick up a grape and pop it into your mouth without squashing it — or you.

Still, the pursuits of other hyper-rich white male industrialists have been more … whimsical.

Last weekend, pyrotechnician and aspiring mole-man Musk watched the animated Japanese movie Your Name. It’s a bittersweet coming-of-age story about two teenagers who find themselves immersed in each other’s lives and ever so gently fall a little in love. Afterwards, he told Twitter he had loved the film. And also that it was time to build a giant robot.

Giant robots are a staple of Japanese animation. Importantly, they are not the autonomous kind of robot. No artificial intelligence or androids here, please. Instead, “mecha” are enormous bipedal vehicles, operated by human pilots and deployed against inhuman threats like kaiju — Godzilla, or the monsters of Pacific Rim.

Had anyone else expressed the desire to ­create a two-legged tank capable of bringing down gargantuan mutant lizards, we’d have laughed — or ignored them completely. With Musk, it’s more a case of wince and brace for it.

He has form, after all. After expressing annoyance at having to drive in traffic and concluding that the world needed more tunnels, he formed a new company that was all about burrowing and got digging.

Soon after, when he said he rather fancied the idea of having his own flamethrower, his tunnelling initiative — The Boring Company — brought 20 000 consumer flamethrowers to market. And promptly sold out.

If there is any method to his … whimsy, then maybe he really has been clearing the way (and the land above ground) for a fleet of people-piloted giant robots.

The human-operated aspect is important. Musk is wary of AI, describing its development in a talk at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2014 as summoning a demon we cannot control. If he’s putting robot boots on the ground, it may well be to protect us from the apparently more autonomous but decidedly less whimsical robots of the East Coast.

You have to wonder about Boston Dynamics. Originally spun out of a programme at MIT, bought by Google, which then sold to Softbank, it has been frightening the public with its decidedly demonic-looking robots since 2005.

Softbank, incidentally, is a Japanese conglomerate that looks after the biggest investment fund in the world, a $100-billion piggy bank which contains, among other things, $45-million from the Saudi sovereign fund, a majority stake in Uber, and a $300-million investment in a dog-walking company called Wag.

And, now, the company has its own fleet of terrifying robots.

Its first iterations were clumsy pack mules made for the United States military, but lately Boston Dynamics has been putting out videos showing Atlas, their two-legged robot, running obstacle courses and doing backflips like a parkour pro — and their four-legged model, Spot, running, jumping, opening doors with its predatory pincer mouth, and moonwalking to UpTown Funk, of all things. Bruno Mars attacks.

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For Musk, Mars must defend. Making ­humanity a multiplanetary species capable of surviving a global catastrophe is among the stated aims of his SpaceX venture. And he has described Mars as a potential bolthole for humanity in case an AI ever rises up and squashes us.

So developing piloted mecha in the Japanese style could conceivably be for a last stand here on Earth, squashing Spot and Atlas right back, should they or their hypothetical corporate AI overlords ever get any funny ideas.

But whatever Musk’s mecha intentions — virtuous or vacuous — there’s one thing he should remember about building and piloting a giant robot.

Which is that Jeff Bezos has already done it.