The Mystery Of The Orphaned Robot

Deep in the bowels of an old industrial building in Brooklyn, behind a dusty steel door, stands a cylindrical device marked “DANGER”. Black rubber accordion folds separate its silver base from its rectangular top, from which protrudes The Claw.

The Claw rises from a sea of colourful wires and pieces of half-built machinery. In The Claw’s shadow, little circuit boards seem to sit in reverie, all but echoing the words of the little aliens inside the arcade crane game on Disney’s Toy Story:

“The Claw is our master!”

Despite the warning label, it looks like an antique but reasonably sane robot. With an industrial blue and grey colour scheme from the 1980s and a sturdy, 12-inch diameter base, The Claw strikes a stalwart pose. This cylindrical, steel torso is well toned, like a Shape magazine cover model, though a black, square box at the back gives The Claw a little junk in its trunk. The box houses pneumatic controllers, devices that push air into hoses and power its movement. A mess of colourful wires spews from a control panel, snaking below the table. Jutting out the back of the box are a small series of pipes and two pressure valves.

It’s about 0.6m tall, but sits on what looks like a catering cart, only sturdier, making it closer to 1.5m. An air compressor occupies the bottom rack of the cart. Pneumatic pressure raises and lowers the body, extends and rotates the arm, and pinches The Claw itself, which is tiny compared to its body, like the hands of a T. Rex.

The Claw’s history is cloaked in robotic mystery. NYC Resistor, in whose Brooklyn clubhouse The Claw resides, is an organisation for hackers that meets every week to solder computer parts and write software programs, and each one of them tells a conflicting story about The Claw. They refer to it as “Mr Stabby”, a name that stuck after someone placed a toy dagger in its pincers.

Raphael Abrams, a hyperactive unshaven art-school dropout, hovers over a pile of circuit boards with a red-hot soldering iron, a bottle of Club-Mate energy drink at the side. He’s one of the few founding members who attend “Craft Night”, in which the club opens its doors to any outsider with a project, every week. Raph remembers roughly when The Claw showed up last spring. “My first reaction was purest lust,” he reminisces. “It looked like another potential ton of fun, and also slightly dangerous.”

He explains that fellow Resistor Charlie Pax fished The Claw out of a dumpster behind a laboratory.

In the midst of Raph’s story, however, another Resistor across the room pipes up, a beanie obscuring his eyes. “Actually, I think some guy brought it here. He said he was moving and didn’t need it anymore.”

Across the table, regulars Matt and Megan work on computer programs while a newcomer, Jennifer, looks on. They say instead that they heard The Claw was donated from a hospital that was upgrading its equipment. (Charlie couldn’t be reached after several attempts.)

The Claw looks on silently from behind the table, unable to correct their stories.

*****

A few weeks ago, NYC Resistor moved a few streets over, but The Claw was not relegated to some corner or closet in the new workshop like some of the other gadgets; it sits prominently near the main hacking action. Every Craft Night, first-timers gravitate to it like flies to a floodlight.

Various metallic stickers decorate The Claw’s surfaces. A red ID tag, complete with model number (830-PR1-C4), control type (so1n), power (1.75 cfm), and max pressure (100 psi) appears on top of the black controller box; a sticker bearing the name “Amatrol” adorns the short cylinder beneath the rectangular topper. But most ominous of all is the large sticker on the main cylinder:

“Danger. This machine starts automatically.”

The coloured wires spilling from The Claw’s gut are now attached to a panel of arcade game push buttons. The Resistors have been tinkering. It’s become a sort of group side project. The four buttons allow them to raise and lower The Claw’s main shaft, extend the arm, and clasp and rotate the pincers. Once they got it up and running, the Resistors held a “birthday party” for The Claw and smashed a penguin-shaped pinata with it. “Even the surliest robots can sometimes find a home full of love and support if hackerspaces are willing to open their doors to them,” writes a Resistor named Matt on the club blog underneath the following video:

*****

The Claw’s ID tag calls it a Mercury Robot Arm and declares its institution: CCNY. City College of New York in upper Manhattan is known for its engineering program, research labs full of pulse lasers and welding machines run throughout the 140th Street building. A robot like The Claw must certainly be infamous up there.

A representative from the Engineering Department disavows any knowledge of a Mercury Robot Arm, but says if anyone would recognise it, Professor Jizhong Xiao, head of the Robotics Laboratory, would. Professor Xiao joined the faculty and established a program for advancing mobile robots in 2002. He specialises in “climbing robots”, and his lab has seen many a robotic claw.

Prof Xiao is friendly, but unhelpful when it comes to this homeless device. “Sorry, I don’t know this robot,” he says in an email. “You can check the internet for information.” Gee, thanks.

If CCNY’s head of robotics doesn’t recognise The Claw, does that mean it fell into different hands before Xiao arrived in ’02? If so, the new owners didn’t talk about it on the web. A Google search for “Mercury Robot Arm” (in quotes) reveals only one result, a page about a different robot. How did The Claw spend its post-university days?

Not only has the Claw’s foster family at CCNY forgotten it, but its own birth mother doesn’t remember it either. The Claw’s manufacturer, Amatrol, builds machines for universities to be used in “skills-based, interactive technical learning.” Nestled in Jeffersonville, IN, a town of 30,000 people, the company manufactures an array of gizmos to help students master things like thermodynamics or computer-controlled robotics.

After digging through some old files, one of Amatrol’s product managers locates a record of the Mercury Robot Arm. But all she can say is that it was indeed sold to CCNY in 1988. Amatrol doesn’t make it anymore, and nobody in her office seems to even remember what it’s used for, she says. All they know is CCNY also ordered a Pneumatic Power Vice and a Rotary Index Table around the same time. She can’t even say what robot replaced The Claw in their catalog.

*****

Though forgotten, possibly even flung into a dumpster, The Claw finally has a home where it can be loved.

Whatever strains of bacteria may have been juggled in The Claw’s grasp, or whatever pneumatic engineering lessons demonstrated with it in years past are now undoubtedly handled by younger, better skilled robots. Raph argues that this is an excellent example of robot age discrimination. “He’s old for a robot, but he’s only like 30,” he points out. “I mean, I’m older than that thing. We have to start applying human time scale to our robots or else it’s nothing but barely legal hot, hot, sexy robots.” Whatever that means.

The research being done now may not have the ramifications of that of its former laboratories, maturity makes The Claw an excellent candidate for Raph’s newest project: Stabbing the Face Over IP. (Think Voice Over IP, but with robots and daggers.) He plans to connect The Claw to the Internet with cameras, linking the stabbing arm controllers to a website so anyone around the world can activate them. People could then operate The Claw from places like Mongolia, perhaps sending threatening webcam footage to friends in France or just making “Mr. Stabby” spin menacingly for the giddy programmers at NYC Resistor.

“The thing is, I don’t think he’s all that violent,” Raph admits.

The Claw looks insulted.

Based in New York City, Shane Snow is a graduate student in Digital Media at Columbia University and founder of Scordit.com. He’s fascinated with all things geeky, particularly social media and shiny gadgets he’ll never afford.

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