Machine Melee

Robot combat as the 21st-century dream sport

In late April I watched Los Angeles machine artist Christian Ristow and his crew lead a squad of remote-controlled killing machines through a fiery ritual of destruction. The robots ruined signs, giant heads, mannequins, and small houses with giant clamping mouths, bursts of flame, crushing pincers, and grinding treads. The audience of hundreds -- drawn away from the reunion of punk rock pioneers The Stooges going on across the polo field at the Coachella music festival -- was transfixed.

It's not as if the crowd of kids was amazed because they'd never seen anything like it before. During the last few years, destructive machines slugging it out to the death have became an unexpected pop cultural phenomenon. Fighting machines are now as cool as alternative music; they're not just for geeks anymore.

The new book Gearheads: The Turbulent Rise of Robotic Sports (Simon & Schuster), by Newsweek Silicon Valley correspondent Brad Stone, tells the story of how this sport was born and how it has evolved. Surprisingly, the book's story is ultimately more legal than mechanical. It's more about intellectual property and courtroom wrangles than engineering hot motors and cold steel.

The sport's roots lie in guerrilla street theater by the likes of Survival Research Laboratories' Mark Pauline and in geek games showcased at science fiction conventions. In 1994 Marc Thorpe, a former performance artist, dolphin trainer, and model builder for George Lucas, decided to institutionalize the loose, subcultural idea of fighting machines in competition. He created a series of annual "Robot Wars" shows, with financing from famously litigious music mogul Steve Plotnicki of Profile Records. The first Robot Wars took place on August 20, 1994, at San Francisco's Fort Mason, with a machine called The South Bay Mauler emerging as champion.

What started as a hip, underground Silicon Valley-Bay Area phenomenon quickly became a massive success, with a spin-off TV show (Robot Wars) becoming a sensation in Britain. Audiences loved to watch robots with colorful sobriquets such as Sir Killalot, Sgt. Bash, and Mangulator tear the transistors out of one another. Such success, however, also brought friction. Thorpe and Plotnicki's relationship descended into a swirling maelstrom of lawsuits that eventually destroyed Thorpe's marriage and his dream of becoming the undisputed (and wealthy) king of an exciting new sport.

Luckily for fighting machine enthusiasts, Plotnicki failed in his attempt to keep the very idea of robots fighting as sport and entertainment trapped on his corporate plantation. That's not to say he didn't try; he even succeeded in suing one alternative competition out of existence even before it started.

But in 1999 early Robot Wars competitor Trey Roski, scion of an immense real estate and sports team fortune, launched Battlebots, another variation on the fighting machine competition. Battlebots became an unexpected hit on American cable's Comedy Central. The more serious builders resented the jokey, wrestling-style commentary with which their competition was presented. They complained that the commentators often seemed to be making fun of the geekish enthusiasms of the operators.

Still, Battlebots gave them a big stage, royalty checks, and the promise of more to come from toy companies licensing their garage contraptions. As the profile of the formerly obscure gearhead game grew, so did corporate participation. Quickly, the grease monkeys -- almost all men, incidentally -- who assembled contraptions in their basements were competing against guys with gangs of employees spending all year and tens of thousands on killer robots. With growing popularity came the threat of death to the inspired amateurism they loved. Yet the amateurs could still win upset victories over the pros.

As a concept, robotic sports is simultaneously grounded in science fiction and as ancient as boys smacking rocks together to hear the cool sound and watch the piles of dust grow. Any kid who ever created fantasies of demolition with their toy cars feels a frisson of delight at the very idea of robot combat. (As Stone grants, since these warring devices are remote controlled and not truly autonomous, calling them robots is somewhat misleading.)

Like virtual reality and modern biotechnology, machine combat is another example of how modern wealth and technology enable the wildest human dreams -- even those that seem disturbing to many -- to come true. More squeamish engineering geeks such as Segway inventor Dean Kamen find the whole idea of fighting machines grotesque. He has even sponsored his own high-school-based robotics competition that is task-oriented, nonviolent, and noncompetitive. A noble effort perhaps, but except for those blinded by a belief that anything violent (even playful violence) is evil, who can doubt that Battlebots will do far more toward Kamen's stated goal of creating cultural glamor and enthusiasm around engineering than his "educational" efforts? Something there is about clanging metal on metal that moves the geek soul to innovation.

To some observers, the story Stone tells is already sputtering to a stop. Battlebots, after a couple of years of riding high in cable terms, was canceled last year, although the original Robot Wars show is still on in 45 countries and other similar shows are planned. The many books about how to build killer robots may eventually end up on the remainder table at your local bookstore. The sport may return to its roots as a passionate hobby for a few hundred obsessive mechanical geniuses. Those in it for the endorsement deals and toy merchandising may well drop out if the market goes soft. But those in love with the dream of making a cool machine, the likes of which has never before been seen, and pitting it in a marvelously violent but perfectly safe combat will still get to do their thing.

Stone describes the reaction of star robot builder Carlo Bertocchini, whose champion Biohazard was defeated on points in an epic Battlebots fight: "He was heading home to upgrade Biohazard, to prepare for the next tournament that fall. Adapt or die -- that was the Darwinian imperative, and the battle cry of his favorite sport."

In a world that is ever richer in technological innovation and new forms of entertainment, "adapt or die" gets to the heart of more than just robotic sports. Even if we don't particularly thrill to the sight of a pneumatic hammer smashing out at a madly whirling souped-up wok sporting cutting blades, we are all better off for its being available to those who do.

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