A Boy and His Robots

I often get asked how my interest in robots started. Usually I demur, changing the topic or avoiding the question with an answer like, “I don’t know, I’ve just always been interested”. Recent events made me ponder the question a little more seriously and I’m going to try to answer it today.

I believe three early experiences were responsible. The first occurred in third grade when I read a book from the school library called ”Andy Buckram’s Tin Men” by famed children’s author Carol Ryrie Brink. It’s marginally a science fiction story about a boy who builds robots out of old metal cans and surplus motors. At some point, the story derails into fantasy when lightening strikes the robots, giving them the “spark of life” and consciousness. I was old enough to realize the spark of life business was nonsense but it got me wondering about how and why humans are conscious and how we could make other conscious machines.

The second experience that influenced my interest was a series of robot sightings on TV and later in books over a period of several years. The earliest TV robots I remember seeing were the B9 robot from Lost in Space and the robot Omega from a German film called First Spaceship on Venus. Robot B9 was clearly a conscious, intentional being despite being constructed from metal and silicon rather than meat like us. Omega was much more primitive than B9 but seemed a more plausible starting point for building a real robot. Before long, I had discovered hard science fiction at the city library and started reading Isaac Asimov’s robot short stories and novels. I often had to be sneaky about it because science fiction made my very religious mother uncomfortable. From my contraband Asimov books, I learned about the three laws (yes, there were only three law of robotics back then, kids; this was long before R. Daneel Olivaw and R. Giskard Reventlov deduced the existence of the zeroth law in Robots and Empire). By this time I had no doubt robots could and would be built. I still had no idea how one might actually go about it; not until the third thing happened.

In 1976, I discovered a strange little TAB book called Build Your Own Working Robot by David L. Heiserman. I’d never seen anything like this before and it made me realize I wasn’t the only person around who thought about building real robots.

Heiserman described building a robot called Buster. The robot’s design reminded me of robot Omega from the movies: small, wheeled, and with intelligence more like an insect than a human. This was before the era of ubiquitous microprocessors. Buster’s brain was a mass of TTL logic chips implementing surprisingly complex behaviours. I began filling the margins of my spiral notebooks at school with Boolean logic gate diagrams that I imagined were subtle improvements on the designs in the book. With no money to spend on parts, I never managed to build the Buster robot but the endless tinkering with logic designs led to a life-long interest in electronics, computers, artificial intelligence and cognitive science.

So what made me think of these robot influences from youth? I recently got the chance to interview Dave Heiserman for robots.net. As I put together the interview questions a lot of these memories came rolling back into my mind and what better use for those memories than to write them down here my blog to entertain my numerous readers; most of whom are probably search engine bots who will appreciate the stories of their distant relatives.

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