BY MARK FRAUENFELDER
Don’t get me wrong — I enjoy the spectacle of a noisy, violent robot war as much as the next person. I love it when sparks fly and
screaming circular blades tear into the metal hide
of smoke-belching battle bots. It’s thrilling to watch
one bot ram another and send it flying into the
bulletproof plexiglass separating the spectators
from the combat arena.
But as much as I like battle bots, and as much
as I admire the clever and resourceful enthusiasts
who make them, I don’t consider these machines
to be true robots. Like many crawling and rolling
mechanical critters given the label “robot,” battle
bots are really just remote control vehicles, albeit
armored and weaponized ones.
To me, a real robot is one that can “think” for
itself, to have a degree of autonomy. In fact, the
first use of robot was in a 1921 play by Karel Capek
called R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) that featured intelligent androids nearly indistinguishable
from human beings.
What does it mean to say a machine is autonomous? I can’t think of a better explanation than the
one offered by W. Grey Walter, the colorful robot
pioneer of the mid-20th century. In his 1953 book,
The Living Brain, Walter wrote that in order for
a machine to demonstrate a “fair imitation” of
cerebral activity it must have “some measure” of
the following attributes: “exploration, curiosity,
free-will in the sense of unpredictability, goal-seeking, self-regulation, avoidance of dilemmas,
foresight, memory, learning, forgetting, association
of ideas, form recognition, and the elements of
social accommodation.” Simply put, a machine that
behaves this way is surprising, fascinating, and a
terrific challenge to build.
It was especially terrific in Walter’s day, given
the level of electronics technology he had to work
with, but that didn’t stop him from designing and
building electromechanical “turtles” with two “brain
cells” that exhibited at least a few of the above
attributes. In this volume of MAKE, senior editor
Gareth Branwyn reveals the little-known true story
of Walter and his robotic turtles.
Walter’s dream lives on today, more than 50
Build a Makey the Robot of your
own that will follow you around
years later. Our own MAKE intern Kris Magri
designed and built an autonomous robot that could
be considered the great-grandchild of Walter’s
turtles. Her article shows you how to build a Makey
of your own that will follow you around the room.
Not all autonomous robots are wheeled or legged.
Some fly. Our cover story, by Wired editor-in-chief
Chris Anderson, explains how he and his fellow
drone enthusiasts have developed inexpensive
autopilots for remote control planes. I witnessed
history in the making in April when Anderson’s
flying drone won the first Autonomous Vehicle
Competition in Boulder, Colo. My account of the
event is also in this issue.
But this issue of MAKE has more than just robots.
We’ve got a fire piston, a speed vest, a servo primer,
and a boombox made from paper cups. If you want
to read this issue in style, why not first build the
Rok-Bak recliner, designed by Larry Cotton. I had
the opportunity to give this comfortable plywood
chair a test drive at this year’s Maker Faire in San
Mateo, and the only thing that could coax me out
of it was the lure of a cup of John Park’s vacuum-made Florence Siphon coffee (which he presented
in MAKE, Volume 17).
Here’s hoping your fall is filled with the sweet
sounds of making.
Mark Frauenfelder is editor-in-chief of MAKE.