Robot Lobsters Prove Google Jumped shark

robot lobster    Ahoy.

It’s hard to change this: it lives on my shelf.

secret life of lobsters cover

I know I don’t need to tell you that a book such as this is priceless: you can tell from the cover.

But perhaps you cannot fathom the treasure inside: proof, that as my profs predicted, the internet has jumped the shark. Let’s take a look:

“Little known to the general public, in a nondescript building on the northern fringe of the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technollgy is a small laboratory where research has been funded in part by the U.S. Navy. Inside, scientists have constructed torpedoes that can all but think for themselves. They are called AUVs, or autonomous underwater vehicles, and they disappear into the sea and carry out missions without remote control.”

Want to know more? Me too. Luckily, it goes on, with clarity:

“During Operation Iraqi Freedom several were dropped overboard in the port of Umm Qasr. On dives that could last twelve hours or more, they swam free on their own recognizance-“

Just give me a second. Ok. Carrying on.

“-hunting antiship mines.”

The chapter (my quote is from page 205) goes on to describe the field of biomimetics, the personality of a few of the researchers involved, and the functioning of robot lobsters (did I forget to mention that’s what we’re talking about here? sorry–no editor) and their various capabilities, such as tracking a scent underwater. There is a bit of an undertone of ‘don’t worry–very nascent technology; doesn’t work very well’ but that’s what you always get when you interview someone about technology controlled by the military. Can’t be helped.

Biomimetics is an interesting field, if only because it tries to build things from its interpretation of an organism up, instead of from a goal down.

Quick reader poll:

Have you seen the video of the shrimp running on the treadmill?
Do you know why the shrimp was running?

Let’s read on.

“Elsewhere the quest for a robotic lobster had taken a more sinister turn. The U.S. Navy was now considering-“

as I am considering how peaceful it is not to question the veracity of this information, it being printed in a book by a publisher and all? I feel like at least 25% more of my brain power is available than usual, since I don’t need to question much the veracity of this information, it being printed in a book by a publisher (who could be sued if it was fake) and all! I wonder if the U.S. Navy were considering similarly. Nope, no, it looks like not–

“-considering plans for a beachhead assault that would begin with thousands of biomimetic lobsters
dropped offshore from low-flying aircraft. Clambering over rocks and sniffing their way through currents toward shore, the robot lobsters would search out mines and blow themselves up on command. Soon the Pentagon was funding robotic-lobster research to the tune of several million dollars” (page 208).

Another quick reader poll:

Are you old enough to remember Googlewhack?

I was pretty good at it.* Ok, truth is I wasn’t at all. But why would you ever know the difference? Does it even matter to me which I say, that I was or wasn’t? It doesn’t appear to, not even to me, since this is the internet.

When I was student, searching large corpuses of text was new. Based on the results I imagine to the last reader poll, I will explain that before searching large corpuses of text was even possible, human beings had to read every single thing that anyone ever wanted to find ever again, decide what it was about, and index it.**

You would think that the people engaged in so tedious a task would be well-read. You’d be right. You might also think they’d jump on any opportunity to escape the tedium that a technology such as full-text search presented them. Wait, did I misspeak? Anyway, they definitely did jump on it, mostly, maybe a little bit because their eyes were wearing out, but no one really cared about that. They all wore glasses already. And anyway they were too excited to care–because they hadn’t been able to keep up with all that everyone was wrirtign in years. The choice was either get a computer to index it or it goes unindexed–and then noone will find it.***

But even the folks working on making all that “automated indexing” — that’s what we called it, it sounds so quaint now — were a little queasy about it. For two reasons.

The first is that it only works by accident.
The second is that it has a central point of control.

If you don’t understand what I mean by the first, you can try to look it up, or wait until I next repeat my rant on informational redundancy, which shouldn’t be long. Because the second is the one I want to talk about in this post.

My professors were afraid, and I thought they were crazy, of the power of automated indexing. They would have walked though fields of armed robot lobsters to get some kind of reins around it.

Because it takes a lot of people to read a lot of books. Different people. Some that like arms races, for instance, and some that don’t. While it only takes one person, or one company, to write the program that reads them all for you.

I remember sitting in lecture shaking my head as the prof, standing in front of a screen projection of the Dialog interface, asked us what it would be like if search engines could hide certain results from us that they didn’t want us to see.

Why in the world would they do that?

Just imagine they did for some reason! she said.

Whatever. No one bought it.

Ok, she said, what if they shifted certain results around in the rankings?

And why in the world would they do that?

Maybe because they were paid to?

Whatever. We granted it was possible, but it was a bizarre future she was envisioning, There were no paid results in those days– it would have been totally unheard of– so no one in the class believed her. Especially when she ranted on about “this Mapquest, that can find you directions”: what if it picked routes for you based on stores it thought you would stop in to, that it had been paid to promote?

We were aghast. A little at the idea, and a lot more by how completely she had departed reality. Albeit on a merchandising-free route. I believe the iPhone now calls what she was describing a feature.

And I believe that the account of robot lobsters in my well-thumbed copy of The Secret Life of Lobsters (Harper, 2004), which I picked up for free somewhere, is the best one you will find.

Keeping in mind that every freaking barrel we dropped overboard in WWII has its own full-length History Channel documentary, I’d like to share these search results from Google:

search results


All exactly 5 of them. Every single one of which looks like complete hooey.

See you at the library! (I might be wearing dark sunglasses. And a bulletproof bib.)

*This is a lie, or vile untruth.

**Scrolling for this footnote was a pain in the neck, wasn’t it. I haven’t gotten around to making them links yet. At least you can tell where to look for them–we’ve been so well-trained you might even feel grateful that you do.

The Secret Life of Lobsters has no index. I tried to find the book in Google Books so I could look up the robot lobsters part with my excellent keyword-of-low-text-frequency “Persian,” but they didn’t have it. So as it was, it took me about 15 minutes to find it by paging through the book from my shelf.

***Which is bad. Just in case you weren’t sure. Very bad, in fact. Worse than this footnote, even, get me?

Cheers, Trevor Corson, wherever you are. Sorry I didn’t make more lobster jokes. You’ve probably heard them all anyway.

And thanks, Google: I’m looking forward to everything I’ve ever heard of that you don’t care for dying with me.

And shoutout to the UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA! I hope you didn’t get automated yet!

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