T first glance, it's
obvious why "BattleBots," the robot fighting show on Comedy Central,
would draw television viewers like passers-by to a car crash.
It is, after all, a series of staged battles between
remote-controlled machines equipped with spinning blades, ramming
spears and swinging maces. It has noise, wreckage, pseudo- sports
commentary modeled on professional wrestling and the all-too-obvious
décolletage of Carmen Electra, proffered to the camera as she asks a
robot designer, after a bout, how it felt to have his weapon lopped
In short, it is mildly nasty, mechanically brutish and thoroughly
tasteless — the perfect television show.
And yet, talking to one of the show's creators, you get the idea
that the whole BattleBot universe is a giant math class, much more
effective than those that take place in a classroom. Trey Roski,
president and chief executive of BattleBots, would have you believe
that the show is almost nothing but redeeming social value.
"To me `BattleBots' is about education," Mr. Roski said in a
telephone interview. "You learn pi building a BattleBot, you learn
it forever. We're teaching kids to think."
About what? Ms. Electra or equations for torque? Are robot
battles on television simply a junkyard circus with models, or is
bot vs. bot a test of intelligence and engineering skill? If
machines ever do become intelligent and self-conscious, will they
revere their fighting ancestors or immediately disassemble
themselves out of sheer embarrassment at their past?
These are not insignificant questions. There are now at least
three television shows with battling robots, including two versions
of "Robot Wars" on TNN and "Robotica" on The Learning Channel. In
Japan, robot sumo is so popular that the championship draws
thousands of people.
David Calkins, president of the Robotics Society of America and
an unabashed proselytizer for robot competition, said of the world
of fighting bots, "In 10 years, it will be bigger than Nascar."
That sounds silly. But make the number 20 years and think of what
happened with personal computers between 1980 and 2000. It makes you
think that at the very least, fighting robots are not going to go
One thing is certain: making robots compete against one another
is irresistible to their builders. "Robot Riots: The Good Guide to
Bad Bots" lists almost 60 robot competitions. Robots compete in
volleyball, soccer, hockey, obstacle courses, maze running and other
events. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration sponsors
robot competitions for children, as does the BattleBots
Some robot competitions involve machines that are designed for
specific tasks and include only transistors and diodes. Some of the
machines are run by humans using remote control devices; others are
true, autonomous robots, programmed for different tactics.
None of the machines look like Arnold Schwarzenegger in "The
Terminator" or even like humans at all. Some do indeed look
fearsome, with visible weapons like spikes or saws or hammers.
Others look innocent on the surface. Ziggo, a BattleBot built by
Jonathan Ridder, shows no weapons but rotates at very high speeds,
160 miles an hour, slamming its opponents into walls and course
hazards like circular saws that pop up out of the floor. Mr. Calkins
said he particularly admired Mecha Tentoumushi, built by Lisa
Winter, which looked like a ladybug but clamped down on opponents,
trapping them against an internal grinder.
Mr. Calkins competes in robot sumo in the United States and
teaches the sport at the Exploratorium, a museum in San Francisco.
He is also a part-time judge for BattleBots. He said Japanese
competitors may spend up to $20,000 on a sumo robot. The devices,
which according to official rules must weigh "less than three
kilograms" (about six and a half pounds) compete in a ring, or
dohyo, and try to push each other off. Weapons are not allowed, and
both remote-controlled and autonomous robots are used. Most have
vacuums to hold them to the surface, and the pull is so strong, said
Mr. Calkins, that upside-down sumo matches have been held at the
To Mr. Calkins, robot sports in all their forms are about design
and thinking. Age, weight, physical handicaps — none are
significant. And watching a show like "BattleBots," you can quickly
become annoyed with the announcers' inane chatter and puerile
double-entendres and find yourself wishing for some real
But perhaps the real appeal of robot battles is fairly simple,
having less to do with Ms. Electra, intelligence and the intricacies
of robot design than with the love-hate relationship consumers have
with technology. With computers, hand-held locators guided by
satellites, or Palm organizers, it is always a difficult question as
to which desire is more fervent — to buy the glorious silvery thing
that will transport you to gadget heaven or to deconstruct it as
violently as possible when it fails to be the mechanism of your
dreams. The fighting robots operate in a world in which you don't
have to choose. You get to have your bot and wreck it, too. The
competitions celebrate and destroy the machines, which are praised
Mr. Calkins agreed that the appeal of violence can't be
underestimated. "People like violence," he said. "Any sporting event
is violent. Even in bowling there's violence. There's pins being
Yes, but it's not as much fun to see bowling pins fall as it is
to watch a saw blade chew up a complicated machine. Now if instead
of pins there were malfunctioning laptops, that might offer a taste
I asked Mr. Calkins whether the designers like to see the
machines get wrecked. He hesitated. Well, he said, "they really like
to see the other robot get wrecked."
It all comes down to guilt-free violence. This is nothing new.
I've just been reading a new translation of "Beowulf" by Seamus
Heaney. Of course it's a wonderful literary classic, but I have to
say that what really caught my attention was the moment when Beowulf
ripped Grendel's arm out of its socket. The explicit description of
skin and bone and ligament tearing apart left little to the
imagination. Then, when he cut off Grendel's mother's head, the
steaming blood of the demon melted the blade of his sword.
You can't feel very sorry for demons, but you don't have to feel
sorry at all for machines. The most fun may be smashing them
yourself. (If you've never taken a hammer to a hair dryer or a radio
— or better yet, an old computer — I highly recommend it.) But it's
almost as good to watch them wreck each other, and then discuss,
with the clinical detachment of an engineer, whether a vicious blade
or a mighty hammer was the better design. Maybe someday there will
be robot football, and the teams will actually be able to destroy
the opposing players. If minimalist robot sumo can fill a stadium,
machine football — to the death — is a guaranteed winner. And it's
O.K. They're just machines.
Mr. Calkins also suggested that viewers should not be content
with television, which does not do justice to the actual events. The
good sportsmanship and helpfulness of the contestants to each other
is remarkable, he said, which is nice.
But what is really great, he said, is the aroma of mechanized
combat: "There's no smell like it. It's kind of like walking into an
automobile garage, but different. There's gasoline, metal being cut,
the smell of sweat and excitement, and the fires."
You don't get any of that with football or basketball, although I
think nobody would be that surprised if it were introduced into
With fighting robots, the contestants sometimes literally burst
Now that's entertainment.