Saturday, January 26, 2008

Could Robots Have Survived the Middle Ages?

I recently found out, through a kind of email grapevine, that one of my colleagues here at Southern Illinois, Jerry Weinberg, who is an expert in robotics engineering and also in human-computer interactions, has devised a robotics mini-camp for middle school students, jointly organized by the Edwardsville High School Robotics team and SIUE's Computer Science department titled, "Could Robots Have Survived the Middle Ages?" Of course, my curiosity was piqued: what, exactly, did the question mean? And shouldn't they have a medievalist consultant? Although, as soon as I posed that second question to myself, I realized that I myself have literally no idea how I would begin to posture myself as an expert who could help design faux-historical medieval settings in which robots could "prove" whether or not they could "survive" the Middle Ages. Regardless, I contacted Jerry Weinberg, and said something to the effect of "please oh please let me play some part in this." What I soon discovered is that the question is a bit facetious and playful, and the idea is to stage certain medieval-themed competitions in which robots or robotic contraptions designed by the students would square off against each other. So far, they have designed three of these: a jousting tourney, a trebuchet competition, and a Save the Kidnapped Princess race. Jerry indicated to me that they would be happy to have me come by and observe when all of this happens in February, but they were also wondering if I could plan a "short activity" to "help put the students in a medieval frame of mind before they start to design their robots." I said I would throw that question out to the medievalist blogosphere. So, my friends, how could we collectively begin to design such an activity? And what other medieval-styled robotic competitions would be appropriate?


Karl Steel said...

Oh, this should be fun. Can't think off hand of any appropriate short activities to put them in the right frame of mind, except perhaps reading them excerpts of Roland (for the jousting), some chronicle that Brantley Bryant quoted recently on one of the medieval listservs (in an email I deleted, dangit: for the trebuchet--or, alternately, showing them the appropriate portion of Kingdom of Heaven or LOTR:ROTK), and perhaps excerpts of Chretien's Lancelot or Yvain (for rescuing ladies).

Medieval robotic competitions, though...most everything coming to my head is very medieval and very silly, at least so far as robots go. Guild processions (but how would the robots judge whose livery was most gauche?); hunting (a robot fox tries to get away from its pursuers); "water jousting" (! my favorite: see William FitzStephen's 12th-c. portrait of London, where kids in the Thames used to go at each other, armed with lances and astride rowboats); or a Beowulf adventure, either underwater wrestling or a giant robot v. (robot) meadhall; or, uh, the great Talmud debates in Paris in the 13th c. or an academic quodlibet (hard to do with robots, but if it comes off, hard to beat!); robot Abelard vs. the thugs sent by Heloise's uncle? (ill-advised); some version of the plague (with microbes played by lots of little magnetic robots trying to affix themselves to one hardworking peasant robot?); robot friars as thick as dustmotes crowding in on one robot parish priest's territory?

bwhawk said...

I agree with Karl that perhaps showing several short clips of medieval (or closely related) movies accompanied with readings would be a great introduction and mood-maker.

As for a medieval robot competition:
All I can think is some sort of re-enactment based on Sir Gawain, in which two robots each take one swift hack to the head (or body, if it were expanded) to see which contender withstands the most damage. This could especially be appropriate for understanding how to fortify technological armor for impact damage (there could be some sort of practical technological application in there somewhere).

Or, as long as we're using our imaginations to their fullest for this thought experiment, how about pitting some of the robots against a giant robotic dragon, in homage to Beowulf and Sigurd?

Anonymous said...

My first thought is that robots would definitely have an edge during the Black Death.

And KTS - it's an interesting passage from the parliament rolls about siege equipment: In the Rolls of Parliament for Richard II, 1377 October (Volume III, page 10, items 38, 39 and continuing), a knight mentions encountering "a trebuchet beyond anything which had been seen before in those parts" (in the translation of the new PRME edition) (un trebuchet outre ascun mesure qe l'en avoit unqes veeu par devaunt en celles marches).

Aiglet said...

I love the plague idea, but then I think swarming robots are nifty.

You might want to show them clips from the trebuchet/catapult division of the most recent punkin' chunkin' competitions, to give them some idea of the power of even badly built siege machines. (Well, I admit that I also think that particular contest is deeply amusing.)

I was thinking you could use traditional fairy-tale elements as well as medieval ones, so you could have the "through the woods" competition (ala Red Riding Hood, only with more wolves and less talking), or the "tower climbing" segment... Less academic, but something the kids will already know about.

Karl Steel said...

BLB: thanks for being my memory's hero. I love how that reference makes the trebuchet sound like a particularly large animal...a marlin, or a buffalo.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

A medieval robot: the pin-operated steed of brass in the Squire's Tale. A medievalesque trebuchet: the pumpkin launcher (scroll down once you follow the link) that inaugurated BABEL in 2005.

You could have so much fun with this, Eileen. A quick activity that is hands-on and that you can actually use the robots against is to build castles out of construction paper and water bottles. I know that sounds cheesy but I can post a nice one my son did in his "King Arthur's Court" summer camp many years ago. Plus, it'd be really fun to destroy a castle with a robot.

Prof. de Breeze said...

I think the robots should have to calculate the date of Easter.

Alternatively, they could be made to get up really early and perform Matins.

Or, if you prefer a more literary contest, have the robots compete to see which one can carry the most fish, a la Havelok the Dane.

Just thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I love how that reference makes the trebuchet sound like a particularly large animal...a marlin, or a buffalo."

Exactly! "You shoulda seen the one that got wheeled away..."

Eileen Joy said...

Thanks so much for all of these wonderful suggestions. I was hoping at least one of the competitions would not be too "Medieval Times"-ish, although trebuchets are not. I laughed out lous at Karl's suggestion of a robot Abelard fending off robot thugs sent to [I believe?} castrate him. Hmmmm, a bit too conceptual *and* x-rated, I think, for middle schoolers. But funny. I think the suggestion of excerpts from "Roland" [which I am actually teaching this semester] and parts of "Kingdom of Heaven" as preparation for the event is a good idea [although I kind of hated that movie]. The suggestion from Brandon of a Gawain-like competition actually strikes me as very doable, and I may, indeed, suggest that [with credit to Brandon]. Aiglet: thanks for mentionining the punkin' chunkin' competition: I will definitely look into that. And since they are already slated to "rescue a princess," why *not* add the tower element? Jeffrey: if you have pictures of that castle your son built that you could post here, that would be great. Thanks, everyone!

Anonymous said...

What you need is some way to automate Crossbows and Catapults. Or maybe it's just me that remembers that with fondness. Double the elastic bands! It's the only way to be sure!