Survival Research Laboratories

Robots have definitely come a long way in the last few decades. For years writers imagined future worlds where robots would do everything. When that future failed to materialize most people added robotics to the pile of cool-but-useless-really sftnal ideas. But it seems as though the robots may finally be coming into their own with many locomotion and autonomy issues being resolved successfully.

Recently a news story popped up about how the makers of the cute and helpful little household cleaning robots Roomba and Scooba had just unveiled the iRobot Warrior X700. Unbeknownst to most Roomba purchasers, iRobot has contracts with the military and has already developed a number of government and industrial robots that do everything from bomb disposal to surveillance. But the Warrior X700 is special. Although it can do all sorts of things, it is possibly unique in its capability of being an autonomous (rather than remote controlled) robot that can be outfitted with weaponry. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the makers of the nifty lil’ vacuum cleaner that can navigate corners have delivered our first bona fide killbot. Practically the next day, a story made the news about a robot cannon killing nine and wounding fourteen soldiers in South Africa.

Naturally not all robots are dangerous. Aside from benign devices like the Roomba or toys like Aibo, the Martian rovers are certainly a testament to what machines can do for us. But there is something chilling and yet fascinating about machines that carry destructive capabilities — like looking at a large predator that would gladly kill and eat you, except without the inherent empathy for a fellow creature. So mechanized killing machines capture the imagination and draw the mind’s eye. The nineties saw the rise of a number of Robot Wars, robot competitions where clever tech geeks would pit their creations against one another, safely confining the violence to machine-on-machine events.

San Francisco’s Survival Research Laboratories is the anarchic, awesome and primitive predecessor to those safer, cleaner events. Started in 1978 and still going strong, SRL is the brainchild of Mark Pauline, welder and visual artist, and a group of engineers and technicians who are completely insane but also brilliant. The insanity is not just skin-deep, either. Pauline lost most of the fingers of his right hand while experimenting with rocket fuel and subsequently had some toes attached to allow him the use of that hand. So he could play with more rocket fuel, natch. And brilliant because the SRL shows are actually pretty safe, at least for the audience, in spite of the outward appearance to the contrary.

Being at an SRL show is rather like infiltrating a world run by SkyNet and patrolled by ED-209s. The machines are patently dangerous and intentionally so — user friendly is not the point. And they’re loud. The one thing you must absolutely have if you want to see them do their thing is earplugs.

I have only been to one SRL show, 1995’s Crime Wave, but the amalgam of anarchy, industrial mayhem, lawlessness and robo-science made a definite impression. The crew was obviously mad to be doing what they were doing but just as obviously focused and professional. Like barnstormers of old they were gleefully misappropriating and misapplying the technology under their control for frivolous and dangerous purposes. And just like barnstormers, the show was exhilarating and the audience enraptured.

It’s hard to explain how the sight of these machines engaged in what the SRL website describes as “a unique set of ritualized interactions between machines, robots, and special effects devices” is different from Monster Trucks, but the feeling of things being almost out of control and the lack of humans involved in the activities makes things quite interesting. Flamethrowers, jet engines, buzzsaws and all manner of devices both remote controlled and automonous fill the area, all simultaneously engaged in acts that are definitely violent but frighteningly purposeful.

Photo credit Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

Even before 2001, large machines and explosive devices were generally not welcome in urban environments. So due to the difficulty in getting a permit for this type of event, most of the shows are guerilla affairs, with times and locations announced at the last minute, and the end of the show often as not presaged by the arrival of the police and/or the fire marshal — and on a few occasions, the arrest of Pauline himself. In fact, after the show I saw, he was cited with 13 misdemeanors and infractions.

Crime Wave took place right under the Bay Bridge, probably less than a block from where I now work. In the words of the press release, the show revolved around “the many humorous aspects of violent human interaction,” which meant that in addition to the pure machine violence there were animal carcasses and dummies being subjected to the tender mercies of the robots, adding an even more alarming appearance to the proceedings.

Although it’s kind of hard to imagine SRL getting away with a similar show today, they are apparently still going strong and just put on a show in Amsterdam where unfortunately Todd Blair was injured. There are some fundraisers planned for the near future to help with the medical bills, including one on November 9th.

~España Sheriff

SF/SF Issue #54, November 2007