Robots On The Run

TO WIT

August 07, 1994|By DAVE BARRY

Today we present Science Quadrant, a look at some wonderful ideas developed by brilliant scientists who still vividly remember that the rest of us made fun of them in high school.

Our lead item concerns an exciting medical breakthrough:

Robot in your colon

We found out about this thanks to alert reader Alice Waugh, who sent us the May 18, 1994, issue of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Tech Talk, featuring an article about an MIT student who has invented a miniature remote-controlled robot designed to crawl far into your large intestine. This will be a great boon to the medical profession, which, as you know, is always looking for new things to stick as far as possible into our various bodily orifices. These procedures are uncomfortable, but there's important medical reason why doctors perform them: To win big cash prizes in the American Medical Association's competition to see who can insert an object the farthest into a patient.

You just know that the colon robot is going to be a big hit in the medical community. Tech Talk states that the robot, which looks like a tiny tank, is equipped with a claw to "grasp and carry objects," and that it "can be operated by a person with a joystick . . . but it also functions independently when untethered."

That last statement worries us. We don't want a robot of this nature -- especially if it has a claw -- functioning independently. ("Hey, has anybody seen the colon robot?" "No, but I'll keep an eye oooowwwww hey get out of there.")

At this point you're asking, "How soon can I, the medical consumer, have this device creeping around in my intestinal tract?" The answer, unfortunately, is "not yet." The problem is that whatever idiot designed the human body was clearly not thinking in terms of robot access. According to Tech Talk, the large intestine "is wet, slippery and lacks firm surfaces"; the robot, as currently designed, does not maneuver well in there.

So they're working on building a better colon robot, and we hope they succeed, just as we hope that one day scientists will develop:

The Spy Fly

We found out about this thanks to alert reader Orrin Grover, who sent us a special issue of the newspaper Federal Times, put out for Public Service Recognition Week, which honors government employees (motto: "You Have The Wrong Department"). The issue begins with a message about improving government. It was written by (speaking of robots) Vice President Al Gore, who makes the following statement, which I am not making up, about the Internal Revenue Service:

" . . . when the IRS asked customers what they wanted, the IRS got a surprise. Customers wanted simple forms, help that is easy to get, and very little contact with the IRS."

We can certainly see how these findings would surprise the IRS, just as they would surprise any normal American who has spent the past 75 years encased from head to toe in cement. But that is not our point. The point is that this same issue of Federal Times has an article about the federal government's Technology Reinvestment Project, which is spending millions of dollars to develop new technologies for exciting uses, such as the Spy Fly.

How would the Spy Fly work? Federal Times asks us to imagine a scenario in which the dictator of a "ferociously aggressive nation" is in his underground bunker, planning a nuclear attack.

"As the dictator talks," says Federal Times, "a fly crawls, unobserved, across the ceiling. The fly is equipped with a sophisticated electronic listening device, far smaller than a human pore. Later, the fly will bring his precious load of recorded information back to a U.S. intelligence officer."

We here at Science Quadrant think this would be a fine use of our tax dollars. The only potential problems we see are:

1. The Spy Fly might not hang around the attack-planning area of the bunker, preferring to spend its time in the dictator's kitchen.

2. It might be hard to get the Spy Fly to return to the U.S. intelligence officer. ("Here boy! I said here boy, dammit!")

3. Misidentification could lead to costly accidents. ("I hate these annoying . . . " Swat! "You idiot! That was the Spy Fly!")

But we're sure that, once these bugs (Har!) are ironed out, the Spy Fly will be a great success, just as we are sure that one day you, the average person, will enjoy the benefits of having a clawed robot functioning independently somewhere in your large intestine. As opposed to ours.

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