Robots: Exoskeletons or mecha
What it gets right about robotics: nothing. But along with Pacific Rim, it is a teachable moment about control and exoskeletons.
Recommended reading: Great story, just don’t get distracted by the lousy robotics.
The highly enjoyable Themis Files series, Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods with Only Human soon to be released, is predicated on a giant robot exoskeleton left behind by aliens. The robot, Themis, is discovered by a little girl, Rose Franklin. Rose grows up to be the most sincere, attractive, and naïve scientist since Jody Foster in Contact. Sleeping Giants documents Rose’s team trying to uncover the mystery of why the aliens left a fully functional robot behind. Waking Gods reports on what happens when annoyed aliens return with the other giant robots. Only Human hopefully (I don’t know this) deals with how we humans give the alien robots the ass-whupping they so richly deserve from the way they treated us in Waking Gods.
The Themis Files is my favorite love-hate robotics book series. As a reader, I love the oral history format, which was used in the profoundly moving book (not the vacuous movie of the same name) World War Z where the reader pieces together the larger story from a series of interviews and news reports. Bit of trivia: Max Brooks didn’t create the oral history format, that was Studs Terkel in his profoundly moving Pulitzer Prize winning book on War World II, “The Good War.” I love how the oral history format assumes the reader is intelligent and can read between the lines. It also assumes that no one person involved in the action can totally comprehend a situation or sees it in the same way as another, but like Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), each view has truth to it.
I also love many of the characters. For me, it’s a toss up between the X-Files cigarette smoking man unmanned bureaucrat who is managing the Themis Files and the Katee Sackhoff Battlestar Galactica take-no-shit-from-anyone Themis pilot (nice to know where on new Earth the Starbuck angel reincarnated to).
As a roboticist, I hate this series with “we hates them” Gollum intensity. Like Pacific Rim and the Star Wars AT-ATs, the series features a large, unnecessarily complex robot, aka piloted mecha in manga parlance. The underlying assumption in the piloted mecha genre is that the robot is so complex that it takes a person(s) inside to run it. This assumption is adorable in manga when it’s a spunky kid doing the driving, in real life not so much. In The Themis Files the pilots have to have years of training with each other to master the coordination. The pilots are split between controlling above and below the waist. (Note that the male pilot gets the “thinking below the waist” job. A #MeToo moment?) In Pacific Rim, the two pilots split the left/right sides of the mecha and avoid tedious training by the magic of brain sharing.
As I try to explain in my article on Pacific Rim for Science Robotics due out on March 29, you’d never design a giant robot that way. Sigh, the more complex a system, the less likely a human can manage the details or react fast enough. Sure, the B-2 bomber has two co-pilots but they don’t directly control the plane; the plane is unstable and only a computer can move the myriad control surfaces fast and correctly enough to keep it from falling out of the sky. Building a huge robot with lots of precision mechanical parts but being unaware of central pattern generators to simplify control is… dumb. I’d like to believe that space faring aliens would be bright enough to figure this out.
Another maddeningly unrealistic aspect is the exoskeleton control interface. In The Themis Files the aliens have legs that are articulated like a goat’s (reminiscent of the aliens from the Charlie Sheen improbably cast as an astrophysicist sci-fi movie The Arrival). As a result, Themis pilots either have to walk backward to fit their legs into the master suit (a type of direct contact controller) or they have to have surgery to rearrange their legs. Hello! There’s a third and fourth option: re-engineer the controller device or create an adapter. Training people to work around technology instead of changing the technology is a fairly common epic failure of good human factors engineering. A classic example is the force reflector “waldoes” or telemanipulators you see in old movies where the scientist has to grab a gripper to pick up a vial of something radioactive or the Andromeda strain inside an isolation chamber (see Introduction to AI Robotics). Those telemanipulators represent a 1940’s Manhattan Project engineering rush job hack to handle nuclear material. The systems are cumbersome, require significant training because they are non-intuitive, and place tremendous physical and cognitive workload on the operator. The only reason why they still exist is that the Department of Energy doesn’t have the money to replace them (just money to pay for the accidents stemming from using those systems, go figure). The rest of the world, such as manufacturing and robot surgery, have all moved on to designing systems that mediate between the mechanics of the device and how humans move and think.
However, every time I say to myself, “I’m done!” there’s an absolutely brilliant plot twist and I’m pulled back in. So here I am waiting for the May 1 release of the third volume in the series, Only Human, drenched in self-loafing.
Themis Files, I wish I knew how to quit you.