Robots against the bomb

14th February 2003 at 00:00
"SEE some day, Mr Steele, could we build a robot to go on Robot Wars?"

Son, I cannae really stick that programme. Look at it: a post-apocalyptic set, flames, chainsaws, hooter noises and slightly overweight guys with potato-wedge lips, spots, nu-metal T-shirts and pony-tails.

The robots are not, to my mind, real robots since they have no kind of computer programming let alone artificial intelligence, but that's not an argument I'm going to win. Presenters in cast-off Mad Max jackets slevver on about mayhem, carnage and 12-volt wheelchair motors. Yes, most of the robots are driven by wheelchair motors. Can you not think of a better use? Like in a wheelchair?

My eight-year-old son and I used to enjoy a programme called Panic Mechanics. Two teams would take one sort of car and turn it into another (hearse into dune buggy, Reliant Robin into dragster - and no, I'm not making this up). Every show featured cars being crushed by tanks, dropped from cranes and - yawn - driven round a post-apocalyptic set with flames, hooter noises . . . blah blah blah.

So welcome to the noisy, dirty, violent, burnie-burnie world of engineering and physical science. It would be foolish to ignore the fact that many people find these programmes exciting and enjoyable. Almost certainly, they do attract children to science and engineering. What worries me is that they might frighten some away.

I remember an old O grade physics textbook that showed a Lancaster dropping bombs. Standard grade books have pictures of ultrasound scanners. Aircraft and helicopters do feature, but they fire lifelines and drop food parcels.

I walk the line a bit myself at times. In one of our units we study nuclear reactions and I will often herald this by saying that "tomorrow I'll tell you how to make an atomic bomb". I stress that they should know how easy or otherwise it is to do these things because the time may come when they will have to make decisions as citizens on this sort of issue.

All the time I am doing this, half the back row are thinking "Big bangs! Destruction! Blow up the school!" Deep down, I know I'm happy that I've got their interest.

So here's an idea for a programme everyone can enjoy: Rolf's Robot Hospital. Weak, damaged robots (who might just not make it through the night) are lovingly repaired by skilful technicians so that they can knock seven bells out of other robots the next day. A winner, I'm sure you'll agree.

Gregor Steele likes watching "Scrapheap Challenge".

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