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Our Windpowered Robot Overlords

For whatever reason, the Pop!Tech crowd appears less terrified of Theo Jansen’s artificial life than of Norman Packard’s. Jansen builds enormous, elegant, incredibly beautiful “animals” – Artifauna – from yellow plastic tubing. The machines – powered by the wind – roam the beaches of the Netherlands in herds, picking a path between the sea and the dry sand. Or, at least, they do when Jansen lets them loose.

Jansen fell in love with these plastic tubes – electrical conduit – as a child, using the tubes to shoot paper darts. Now he lashes them together into complex structures that walk in a way that’s stunningly natural.

While the structures are profoundly handmade, they’re also computer designed and modeled. Jansen built a genetic algorithm to design a leg that would walk in a straight line – his leg has 11 lengths of tube attached together, and getting the lengths of the 11 pieces of tube right is a hugely complex mathematical challenge. Jansen created 1000 virtual legs with random parameters on a computer, “cross-bred” the 100 that were most fit – walked in a straight line – and then built complex beasts around these legs. You can see a few of them walk on the Strandbeest website.

The “eleven magic numbers” that specify the design of the legs serve as a sort of “genetic code” for the creatures. If you know the correct values, you can build your legs, which should function the same way. As Jansen puts it, “Copying codes is reproducing. So I’m almost there…”

Under the power of a strong wind, Jansen’s creatures – with names like Animaris Sabulosa or Animaris Currens Ventosa – ripple, stomp and wander sideways across the beach, propelled by flowing sails or propellers. Some try to steer themselves clear of dry sand, where they can get caught. Some fill try to anchor themselves against a strong wind. One is tethered to a “child” that scouts the terrain to the side.

Not all of Jansen’s pieces are lightweight. He showed a beautiful progression from prototype to reality of a new walker, first in carboard, then made from recycled pallets, finally from iron. The resulting creature is 3.7 meters tall, weighs several tons and can be moved by Jansen pulling it gently.

Jansen tells us that the future of artificial life isn’t the yellow conduit we’ve seen so far, but a new type of conduit called “faporum” – this conduit has a piston action – when you blow air into one end of it, it expands. Jansen’s used these pistons to build a NOT gate, powered by “stored wind” in lemonade bottle – he threatens to build a programmable artificial brain from these expanding rods, a threat that would be merely funny, if we hadn’t seen the magnitude of these crazy beasts.

A Jansen creature at PopTech

One of Jansen’s creatures was on display on stage and later across the street from the opera house. It’s wonderfully light – with a light tug, I could pull it across the lawn. It seems to be held together with string, friction fittings and the occasional peg. It’s profoundly beautiful, a cross between Gilligan’s island and Rodney Brooks’ robots.

If they’re windpowered and beautiful, I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.

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