Thursday, May 3, 2007

Futurism: Gecko Robots And Cops

The frequently-awesome NXTStep Lego Mindstorms NXT blog has not one but two gecko robots. One was built by Carnegie Mellon researchers; the other was built by hobbyists in Italy using the old ("obsolete") Lego Mindstorms RIS kit from the 90s.

The part about cops is scary, so before we go there, let's think about these gecko robots. One is built of cheap commodity parts by nobodies; one is supported by synthetic nanofiber research at one of the top research universities on earth. This is a nice contrast, the high-tech built by amateurs thing, that's always cool. So let's look at something similar - like submarines and helicopters built by Chinese peasants.

It kind of underscores how different China is. In Medieval Europe, a peasant lives in dirt. In modern China, a peasant builds his own helicopter. Weird.

That's kind of uplifting. Kind of happy. Kind of hopeful. Very quirky. Funny and entertaining.

Let's get to the cops.

Here they are, beating women and children at a peaceful demonstration in downtown Los Angeles, which is, for better or worse, one of the world's cultural capitals, and one of the greatest cities of one of the most free and democratic countries on earth. Which country, obviously, did not enjoy its most free and democratic moment yesterday.

Boing Boing has all the details, including a great video roundup; check out this one, which features Fox News reporters getting physically attacked for simply trying to cover a story - very much contradicting their network's stereotype - and this one as well. Long story short, even compared to the WTO riots in Seattle ten years ago, this was crazy. Unlike the Seattle riots, the protestors did nothing. Some of them weren't even protestors; some of the people attacked were pushing carts around and selling hot dogs. Some of them were children under 10.

What does this have to do with gecko robots?

I'm so glad you asked.

Watch movies and TV, read modern fantasy fiction, and you'd be inclined to believe that societies have always had police forces. This isn't the case at all. The police did not exist in European civilizations until the 1800s, when the British invented them, in London.

My secret theory is that they were actually imported from Asia. Or rather, that the English got the idea from colonial experiences in Asia. The Chinese have used standing armies against their own people for thousands and thousands of years, and England at the time had a strong military and colonial presence in China. Indeed, these scenes from downtown LA are less shocking than they should be because we see scenes just like this coming out of China, Indonesia, and Singapore about once a month.

The reason a peasant can build a submarine or a helicopter in China, yet never become something more than a peasant, is because of a powerful, corrupt system that is designed for the express purpose of consolidating money and power in the hands of people who control it. Contrary to Chinese propaganda, Communist China is really not very different from pre-Communist China. It became Communist when a massive peasant revolution put Chairman Mao in control. But the historical pattern in China, for thousands of years, has been one of tyrannical government, which gets away with all kinds of mistreatment until the peasants have had enough. Then they rise up, put their leader on the throne, and life goes back to normal. The system is perpetuated, but different people get control of it.

This is why a Chinese peasant is a peasant. Because he's outside the system which controls money and power. A Chinese peasant smart enough to build a submarine remains a peasant anyway, and builds a petty little peasant submarine. And that is all his genius ever amounts to.

What happens to a Carnegie Mellon researcher smart enough to build a gecko robot? Of course, he or she goes on to do more robotics research, gets paid well, lives in a nice house, and raises fat and happy children.

What happens to an Italian hobbyist smart enough to build a gecko robot?

Does he or she go back to work on Monday like nothing ever happened?

Of course they do.

The thing that makes America different is that here, you might not be back at work on Monday like nothing ever happened. Make something truly brilliant, and you can fire your boss. This is a place where you can start from your garage and end up a gazillionaire.

But the attitude that takes cops and uses them simply as soldiers against innocent people gathered peacefully in a park, that is an attitude which undermines that American greatness. Because if what the cops do has nothing to do with the law, then they're nothing but a weapon for people with influence to use against people without influence. If your relationship with your boss is a purely economic one, you have the power to fire them; if your relationship with your boss is determined by the fact that your boss can use cops against you, and you can't use cops against them, whether they break the law or not, then you don't have that power, and the whole American Dream tanks. It's no longer possible; it goes from dream to daydream, because it rests on economic equality, and equality under the law. Without those things, it just can't happen.

I can't tell you exactly what the future is here, but I would love to see some solid statistical research on police presence as a predictor of economic innovation. I suspect police presence is a strong indicator of wasted innovation - which is to say, innovation which would be useful to everybody but which is never distributed widely. The reality is, if the police were only ever used in the United States to uphold the law, there would be less of them than there are. Every tax dollar that moves out of our pockets to pay the salary of a police officer who doesn't even uphold the law is a dollar that could have launched the next Apple, or a failed attempt at becoming the next Apple. (And failed startups are one of the best centers of research in this country.)

Also: In a way, open source represents a triumph of the amateurs. Amateurs might not rule the world of gecko robots or submarines, but open-source software beats proprietary software almost every time. I don't know exactly how that ties in, but I know it must mean something.

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