Robots. According to nerds, they are the future. Depending on which Hollywood you talk to, it’s either a shiny, optimistic future where wealthy white people sip champers and gad around in flying cars or a dark, oppressive future where grim darkness is the law of the land and metallic hands are slowly throttling the life from an all-too fragile humanity.
We like to think robots are a modern invention, but they’re not. The concept of a robot apocalypse is a modern idea, but it's rooted in a very old fear. What will the next generation be like? We all know wonderful people who produced horrible children, and there are hundreds of stories of inter-generational warfare between parents and children. This is an extension of that, but with robots.
Autonomous clockwork figures have been around a long time, and have been used in a variety of interesting and occasionally terrifying ways. If you’re afraid of robots and find yourself at the controls of a TARDIS, try to avoid pre-Revolutionary France. They were into some weird stuff. Stuff that makes modern Japan seem almost normal by comparison. Almost.
This list is a selection of some of the most terrifying robots created by humanity. However, I have great faith in humanity’s ability to go above and beyond in its quest to terrify and destroy, so you could probably consider these a warm-up or an appetiser for the terror that is yet to be.
If you take nothing else from this, the end of mankind will probably speak French, so at least the end will be classy. It might insult your wine choice, though, so try not to skimp on the good stuff. It could save your life. It won’t, but it could.
10 La Jouseuse de Tympanon
Prior to the great equalizer that was Madam Guillotine, the French aristocracy spent their days laughing at the peasants and revelling in the kind of decadence you just can’t get anywhere anymore. From the lush palaces to robot voodoo dolls, even the wealthiest people alive today would be hard pressed to match the sheer opulence of their lives.
Yes, you read that right. Robot voodoo dolls.
Made with the clothes and actual hair of Marie Antoinette, La Jouseuse de Tympanon is a dulcimer playing robot built around the 1780s by a German watchmaker, Peter Kinzing and his partner in the forbidden arts, cabinetmaker David Roentgen, officially to commemorate the young Queen, but unofficially it probably stored her soul in case of revolution. It can play eight songs, all of them worrying.
It was badly damaged in the Revolution, but was restored at some point in the nineteenth century. It now sits in Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, waiting.
9 Robot Devil
Pop quiz. You’re a priest in the Medieval era. You need money to keep your church in shape, but the parishioners keep dying of the plague or going to war or working the fields to give you money.
- Do everything you can to support your flock and hope they’ll remember your kindness?
- Give it up and run away to Rome to live in luxury?
- Build robots to terrorise and awe the peasants into giving you all their money?
If you picked option 3, bad luck, you missed the boat by a few centuries, but a good idea nonetheless.
This one is carved in wood, sometime around the 15th/16th centuries, and is currently part of the Wunderkammer owned by Ludovico Settala. It could, in the words of the Cosmodromium Blog, "roll its eyes and move its tongue, emit a noise and spit smoke from the mouth."
No word on its musical skillz so we must assume they can at least pay the bills.
8 Karakuri dolls
Alongside anime and cars of varying quality, Japan is best known for her robots.
As demonstrated so far, robots are by no means a modern creation. And Japan has been practicing for a long time.
Hisashige Tanaka, a 19th century Japanese engineer, was a fan of Karakuri ningyo (dolls) that “tease, trick and take people by surprise.” One of his creations was the Yumi-iri doll, a Karakuri that picked up and shot 4 arrows.
He later went on to found the company that would later come to be known as Toshiba. So that shiny Chromebook you’ve been considering picking up? It’s descended from robots designed to mess with your head as they shoot arrows at you.
Enough of past horrors! Let’s see the future! Where robots steal our faces after stamping on them!
WD-2 is a “face-bot” designed with the 17 points of mobility in the human face in mind. This gives it unparalleled motion in the face, allowing it to emote more convincingly and even mimic specific faces and hairstyles. You may remember similar technology was utilised to create the stone-cold killer, Robert Patrick, as seen in the documentary T2: Judgement Day.
The faces it mimics have pre-programmed into it, but any face can be added or removed with relative ease, meaning it can speak, laugh, cry and yell “death to meatbags!” while wearing your face.
Building on WD-2 is the Geminoid. Built by Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University, it was shaped using a mold of the professor’s own body for the overall shape of the robot, had his body language and voice programmed into it, and even has the professor’s real hair glued to its head.
He uses it as an avatar at staff meetings he doesn’t want to attend, and probably has a small army of them in seclusion, waiting for the order to march. Always waiting.
I have seen the future, and it has the vaguely handsome face of a middle-aged Japanese professor.
5 Digesting Duck
And we return to France, land of forbidden technomancy, to learn about the Canard Digérateur. Beautiful language, French. Pretty much the only language that makes “pooping robot duck” sound sexy. In the words of the incomparable Voltaire, “without...the duck of Vaucanson, you would have nothing to remind you of the glory of France.”
Built by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1739, the digesting duck was the first in what he hoped would be a line of digesting robots. As a party trick, people could feed food pellets to the duck, which would later leave a deposit of actual duck faeces, because pre-Revolutionary France was a unique country.
Vaucanson died before seeing his dream of a machine capable of achieving throughput be created in 2006. Wim Delvoye has produced a Cloaca Machine, which actually digests food and leaves vacuum packed leavings that consistently sell-out.
Designed by the Hanson Robotics ("MmmmBop" money doesn’t last forever), Jules is described on their site thusly: “Jules is something of a 'complete package'... By integrating natural language processing with ASR, TTS, computer vision, artistry, and narrative, you can have a natural, interactive conversation with Jules... with natural-language AI (such as LSA statistical search techniques) and word.net to simulate an eerily human conversational intelligence. Jules also uses computer vision, including face tracking and face recognition, to simulate complete verbal and nonverbal interaction, such as maintaining eye contact and turning to follow fellow conversationalists.”
When your creators describe you as “eerily human” and mention your capacity for tracking people, that’s what some might call a “red flag.”
Check out his goodbye video before he was shipped to England for vague science-y reasons, where he mentions his desire to dream and warns a baby that he “will never forget you. Someday I will come and find you.”
Being a dentist sucks. Spending your days up to your elbows in halitosis, whiny patients, having to give the same damn lecture every twenty minutes about brushing and flossing, it’s not a nice job.
Researchers in Japan, determined to take back their crown from France, developed the Simroid to help train students. With human-like skin, a basic vocabulary and highly sensitive receptors all around her mouth, the Simroid is designed to do nothing but feel pain and has limited means of expressing it.
She even has a gag reflex! Because there is no God and the only order is what we forcibly impose!
2 Clockwork Monk
An ancient machine, cast in a mockery of the form of man, is acquired by a museum. With a mysterious past and the documented ability to walk and move it’s arms, clearly it’s just a matter of time until the corpses start piling up.
This is no horror movie. This is an actual thing that really happened.
The Clockwork Monk was discovered to have been created in honour of a monk that miraculously saved the life of a prince. Said monk had already been dead for about a century, so the king dug him up and stuck his rotting corpse in the prince’s bed.
When the prince recovered, the king commissioned the clockwork monk, which "walks in a square, striking his chest with his right arm, raising and lowering a small wooden cross and rosary in his left hand, turning and nodding his head, rolling his eyes and mouthing silent obsequies. From time to time, he raises his cross to his lips and kisses it."
Because the best way to repay a miracle is to create an unholy abomination that knows only terror.
1 La Princesse
Okay, so we’ve had a good list. Bunch of cool robots from throughout history. Forewarned is forearmed, right? What robot could possibly pose a credible threat to today’s citizens?
And so, for our final offering, we turn once more to France, already known as the land of shitbots and vodoobots, and the work of La Machine (The Machine for those swine who don’t speak French).
La Princesse is a 37 ton, 50 foot tall spider robot that made its debut rampaging through Liverpool. Sure, they said it was a show as part of the Capital of Culture celebrations, but I’m sure in the future we’ll look back on it as a dress rehearsal.
The lesson to take from this?
French robots are going to kill us all. Possibly while piloted by Japanese robots.