About the Author

David Jones

David Jones is a full-time freelance writer with a degree in zoology. He has written widely on natural history themes and has published one previous book for young readers. He lives in Vancouver, B.C.

Books by this Author


A Novel
also available: Hardcover Paperback
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Empire of Dust

Empire of Dust

Settling and Abandoning the Prairie Dry Belt
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Feasting on Misfortune

Feasting on Misfortune

Journeys of the Human Spirit in Alberta's Past
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Mighty Robots

Mighty Robots

Mechanical Marvels that Fascinate and Frighten
also available: Paperback
tagged : film, modern
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Excerpted from Chapter 1

In Our Own Image

What do you see when you hear the word robot? A mechanical arm in a darkened factory, welding a car body in a veil of sparks? Or maybe you picture a tractor rolling over a sand dune on Mars, pausing to collect a scoop of rust-colored dirt. Or a tiny submarine drifting through the corridors of a sunken ship.

All of these machines are real robots. And yet it's far more likely that you envisioned something in the form of a man, perhaps clanking out of the dark with glowing eyes, reaching for you with metal claws. The robots we have seen in movies and read about in stories live in our imaginations. They are what we think of when we hear the word robot. For a century now, we've had a recurring dream of a mechanical man -- a servant to obey our every command. Such a machine would free us of all our dull labors. While it's taking out the garbage or walking the dog, we could go to the beach or see a movie.

But for every dream, there is a nightmare. Robots also frighten us. The metal bodies that make them powerful servants give them the strength to crush us. We ask, "Will a machine created in our image look favorably upon us, its creator?" Since we began imagining robots, our answer has almost always been no.

Although we may one day succeed in building a machine in our own image, we probably won't be able to predict what it will do. Like people, such a machine will act independently -- maybe even against our wishes. Perhaps that is why robots both fascinate and frighten us.

What Exactly Is a Robot?

While the idea of the robot began ax a machine in the form of a human being, few real robots look anything like us. They toil away in factories, the depths of the ocean, or outer space, far from human eyes. We send them to places where people cannot, or would rather not, go

Most robots are machines that replace human effort, built to do something that otherwise a person would have to do. Some robots are toys, but most are labor-saving devices.

A dishwasher is a labor-saving device. Does that make it a robot? No. A dishwasher is an automatic machine; it does the same thing over and over. So is a conveyor belt in an auto factory. All it does is move forward, carrying a product or a part to the next worker. But a robot welder can be reprogrammed to move to any position within its reach before welding two parts together, depending on what it is making.

There is a second kind of robot that does only what people tell it -- usually using a joystick or other form of remote control. It's called a telerobot. While a telerobot might surprise a stranger, its actions are entirely predictable to its operator. It has no capacity for independent behavior. For this reason, some people don't consider telerobots to be true robots.

And yet telerobots are the most successful robots of all. We send them into places that are too dangerous, small, or unpleasant for people. There are telerobots that put out fires, explore sunken ships, or peer across the universe and back through time. In fact, almost all the robots working outside of factories are telerobots. Because they have proven so useful, telerobots are included in this book.

True robots change their behavior by sensing the world around them, then acting on this information. They may be able to hear a human voice and move towards it, or recognize one object in a bin full of different things and pick it up. But such robots are rare. Only now are they starting to make their way into our homes.

Today almost all robots are at least partly controlled by computers. So does that make your home computer a robot? Not really. Your computer can't move. Whether a robot looks like a human being or not, or is controlled by a joystick or a software program, all or part of its body moves.

The dream of roboticists (scientists who build and study robots) has long been to make a machine capable of doing what a person can. Such a machine would have to be intelligent.

But what do we mean by "intelligent"? There are many definitions of the word. One that would be applicable to robots is "having the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one's environment." Another one is "having the ability to deal with new or trying situations"

Alan Turing is considered no be the father of the branch of study known as artificial intelligence, or AI. Turing was part of the team of scientists who built Enigma, a machine that allowed the Allies to decipher coded messages sent by the Germans during World War II. Most historians acknowledge that without Enigma. the Allies would never have won the war

Shortly after the war, Turing gave the first public lecture on artificial intelligence. "What we want," he said, "is a machine that can learn from experience." He added that such a machine would have the ability to alter ins own instructions

The History of the Robot

Many have called Mary' Shelley's novel Frankenstein the worlds first stork of science fiction. In the story, written in 1816, Victor Frankenstein sews together a manlike creature using various body parts taken from dead people. He brings his creature to life with an electric charge furnished by a bolt of lightning. Shortly after he succeeds in bringing his brainchild no life, Frankenstein gives it a series of lessons to help it function in the world.

Although he was assembling organs and limbs rather than wires and motors. Frankenstein's goal was very much the same as that stated by Alan Turing over a century' later: to create an artificial being able to learn from experience. So. had he been a real person, would Frankenstein have qualified as the worlds first roboticist?

Maybe But to trace the origins of the robot we have to go back way before the good doctor began robbing the local graveyards. People have been trying to create machines in the forms of animals and people for thousands of years


Much of the technology used in early robots was developed in toy's called automatons. These toys were often very delicate and expensive, and so they were usually owned by adults and not children. Most of them were figures in the shapes of people or animals. They could he powered by springs, weights, or hand-turned cranks.

Hero of Alexandria, a mathematician and inventor who lived around 62 CE, drew up simple plans for figures that played musical instruments, birds that chirped, or hunters who shot arrows at dragons. No one knows if he ever actually constructed any of these automatons; if he did, only the plans survived. Most of the automatons seem beyond the technology of Hero's time, but they are some of the earliest known designs to make use of hydraulics and pneumatics -- the techniques of powering machines by forcing liquids or air through pipes and hoses

Today, the movements of the animatronic figures you see in theme parks like Disneyland are still powered mainly by hydraulic or pneumatic devices. Pneumatic (air-driven) mechanisms have largely replaced hydraulic (oil- or water-driven) machines because pneumatics are much faster and lighter, if not as powerful or smooth as hydraulics. Also, if an air hose leaks a little during a show, it doesn't matter too much. If a hydraulic arm full of oil leaks the results can be quite memorable. Crowds visiting the Hall of Presidents exhibit at Disneyland will probably never forget seeing Abe Lincoln -- apparently too patriotic to excuse himself from the proceedings for even a moment -- wet his pants.

In the 1600s, the Japanese built puppets called Karakuri. The most common was a doll that served tea. When a cup was set on a tray the doll carried, the doll shuffled forward. When the cup was removed, is triggered a switch that caused the doll to turn and walk back the way it came. (Actually, the doll rolled on wheels, but a pair of wooden feet dangling beneath the hem of its dress made it appear

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Monks in Space



in a spaceship,
in a church,
in a scratchy monk's habit,
in a film of perspiration,
Bart stood balancing a powdery white bowl on a gray tile. His hands were clammy with sweat, and all he could think was, I'm going to drop it.

That would be bad, as the bowl was worth more than most people earned in a lifetime -- or, at least, it would be, once the glaze coating had been fired. Bart was pretty sure the bowl was Brother Peter's work. He knew that Peter had been trying to perfect a blue glaze for almost two years now, and so that would most likely be its final color. It was impossible to tell from the unfired glaze, but Bart had seen some of the test tiles, the azure of an abyssal sea. One day, the bowl in his hands might grace the dining table of a king or the president of some interplanetary corporation.

That's if you get it to the altar without tripping. Bart looked up from the bowl and down the great hall of the cathedral, past the stained-glass tableaux, past the statues of the saints -- Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler -- past the monks in their stalls, to the chancel where the Abbot prayed. Fifty steps. He had made the trip a thousand times, but this was the first he had been allowed to carry a piece to the kiln.

"Just pretend it's full of thirty-year-old, single-malt scotch. That way you won't drop it," Gary had whispered to him just before Bart left his stall. "Oh, wait: That's if I was carrying it." Bart had tried to impress the seriousness of the ritual upon Gary. Pyros was the most important of their annual rites. It was when the monks offered the Sun their wares of the wheel and the kiln. Soon they would know whether His Divine Light had embraced those offerings. "Yeah, and what your gross revenues should come to for the year," Gary had added with a smirk.

Bart felt another bead of sweat trickle down his cheek and cling to his chin. He edged the bowl out of the way a second before the drop broke free and dripped onto his toe. The bowl wobbled on its tiny three-point stand.

Brother Aelred turned at the sound and scowled. "What's the matter?"

"Nothing. I just --"

At the far end of the church, the Abbot stood, then bowed his head to the Sun. "We humbly offer these, the fruits of our labors, to our Heavenly Father, and pray that they may find favor even in the scrutiny of His Divine Light."

That was their cue.

"All right," whispered Brother Aelred, putting a hand on Bart's shoulder. "Follow me." Then he took his place at the head of the procession immediately in front of Bart and they started walking toward the altar. Each of the nine monks carried a bowl, cup, or other vessel coated in the white, unfired glaze.

Light poured through the stained-glass windows of the cathedral, daubing the monks' dull robes with color, heating everything. No wonder he was sweating. Our sweat cleanses us, as Brother Aelred was fond of saying. But feeling the drops break from their pores and make their reckless dashes down his back, Bart felt anything but clean. His habit was soaked.

One foot in front of the other, he thought. Just forget about the bowl. He looked past Aelred toward the altar. They reached the choir, where two rows of stalls faced each other across the church. In each stall was a monk, following in his hymnal, chanting his responses to the Abbot's calls from the altar. Bart counted the brothers under his breath as he passed between the rows: forty-one monks. Then the nine of them in the procession. Plus Gary. And of course the Abbot. The entire ship's company was present.

He tried to watch the path ahead of him, but out of the corner of his eye he caught something moving. Something black. It was Gary's shoe, sticking out from where his ankle rested on one knee, jiggling. Church was the only place that Bart had seen Gary nervous. From the moment he sat down, he fidgeted.

Aelred caught the movement too, and Bart saw him scan Gary with a glance as they passed. Stillness of the body is the first step to stillness of the mind. Gary looked up and stopped jiggling his foot. A moment later, he uncrossed his legs and planted the foot on the stone floor, squashing the impulse.

It was not as if Aelred held any authority over Gary. As the ship's pilot, Gary could probably tell Aelred what to do -- at least in an emergency. But of the fifty-two souls aboard the Prominence, Gary was also the only non-monk -- unless you counted Bart, who was still only a novice.

Two steps up and they were in the chancel. Nearly there. Aelred placed his offering upon the altar, knelt briefly, and then backed away. Bart's turn. He genuflected, careful to keep his bowl level, then placed it next to Aelred's. He stepped away, relieved. The rest of the monks followed.

When the altar could hold no more offerings, the monks filed from the chancel and stood in a line down the middle of the choir. Well, not quite the middle. The monks were careful to stand just to one side of a set of bright tiles running from the altar and down the exact center of the space.

The formation of the kiln was Bart's favorite part of the ceremony. The Abbot retreated to the pulpit and stretched wide his arms. As he brought them together and clasped his hands in prayer, the walls and ceiling of the chancel began moving inward. In half a minute, they enclosed the altar in three walls of a booth. Then the oven window, a slab of thermopane, swung into place from beneath the altar, completing the kiln. At the same time, a screen beneath the cathedral's clear vaulted roof withdrew so that the columns seemed to support the starry sky itself.

Now in full sunlight, the monks put on their sunglasses.

This part always made Bart a little nervous -- even when he was sitting in one of the choir stalls. Outside the Prominence, a series of mirrors turned to the Sun. They would soon concentrate His Divine Light into a beam that would creep up the floor of the church to the kiln. In seconds, the pieces inside would heat to thousands of degrees and the powders coating them melt into the Copernican Order's renowned glazes.

Bart couldn't help but wonder what would happen should that beam stray from the heat-absorbing tiles marking its path. He had come aboard the Prominence when he was nine -- almost six years ago now. Each time he attended Pyros, he imagined the same awful sight: the concentrated beam of His Divine Light slicing through the assembly, turning the monks' robes to flame as they tried to scatter from its lethal path. But there were too many of them, and the rows between their stalls too small for the faithful to escape, screaming and climbing over one another. And today he would be standing right next to the beam's path.

Once, he had confessed his fear to Brother Aelred.

"You mustn't think such things," said the Prior gently.

"But it could happen. Couldn't it?"

"No," said Aelred. "The mirrors are controlled by the computer. Even if the beam were to wander from the ordained path, the computer would cut power to the motors controlling the first mirror and a spring would instantly turn it away, deflecting the beam into space." Aelred's answer surprised Bart. He had expected something more like, "Sol would never permit such a terrible thing to befall His faithful -- especially during Pyros, the most fervent hour of our worship."

Oddly, he took more comfort in Gary's answer to the same question: "Gosh. I guess we'd all die." And then, after a second's thought: "Horribly."

He looked up and saw Gary grinning at him. He must have recalled the same conversation. Bart cast his eyes down again as the bar of light crept past his feet. He could feel the heat on his toes. The incense scattered over the path flashed

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Wake Up Canada

Wake Up Canada

Reflections on Vital National Issues
tagged : canadian
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