Theo Jansen: Like The Professor From Gilligan

[Theo Jansen] is building lifeforms that will live and thrive on the beach. He calls them StrandBeest and uses PVC electrical conduit, plastic tubing, and lemonade bottles as building material. The many-legged creations are amazingly advanced, able to count steps, sense and flee from the water’s edge, and protect themselves from high wind. He gave a TED talk back in 2007 that we’ve embedded after the break; it’s uncanny. See examples of his creations using fans and sails to store wind energy as compressed air in the lemonade bottles, then use that pressure for locomotion. He also demonstrates a binary step counter and water sensor.

[Thanks Eric]

56 thoughts on “Theo Jansen: Like The Professor From Gilligan

  1. I dislike the way the media hypes up this project so much! What deserves the hype is the Jansen mechanism/linkage that is used to create incredible walking motion. What doesn’t deserve the hype is the StrandBeest project. “Look guys, I put a tricycle on the beach with a sail and it lives and thrives there!” The only difference here is that the devices utilize leg linkages to facilitate locomotion. What happens if a living, thriving StrandBeest accidentally moves into several inches of water and wet sand where the tide is hitting the shore? What happens if a living, thriving StrandBeest walks into a bush? Is a leaf being blown by the wind living and thriving?

    1. Say that after you have gone through the exercise of making a computer program that can accurately emulate a cockroach brain. The primary differences between simple animals and today’s robots are complexities in their mechanisms and the sorts of materials and processes that form their bodies. If what Jansen has made isn’t life, it’s at least an interesting surrogate for it.

  2. @Michael V
    I take it you;ve never hear dof the concept of Computational Robotics then? The Strandbeests operate autonomously without any centralised controller or nervous system: each component reacts independently in a simple, and the interaction of the reactions creates emergent behaviour (hydrophobia, etc). The studding efficiency is also very impressive, not only of the walking mechanism itself, but the control mechanics. While not meeting all the requirements for life (e.g. self-replication,which Viruses also fail on, growth, adaptation), they do exhibit Homeostasis, Organisation, Metabolism, and response to stimuli. That’s as close or closer than many robot ‘organisms’.

  3. Agreed…. Constantly referring to it as “living” is annoying and pretentious.

    Really, I find it sad that he smothers the arguably brilliant engineering and simplicity of his design in all that existential BS.

  4. Amazing. People can make stuff like this and put it out in public without it being destroyed. Around here we have no beaches, but this type of project would be smashed to bits by the first idiot who put eyes on it.

  5. A MA ZING!
    A mechanical binary step counter so that it knows the position between the shore and the dry sand? So cool! I don’t care what Ted calls these things. He is a genius and I love autonomous machines. I couldn’t create some self-containing beach-machine with an arduino and $10.000 in my hands.

    Why don’t spiders have 11 legs?

  6. He gave a speech on campus a year or two ago. It was really interesting hearing him talk about his creatures. As an engineer, hearing him talk about them as if they are alive is a little disturbing and, as someone else said, sounds conceited. However, his speech was not just to engineers, but artists and math majors, and everyone else. The more he talked about the emergent behaviors, and the things he was trying to build into them; a fear of water, ability to sense the surface they walked on; the more they did seem to get closer to being alive.

    If we want to complain about it being ‘alive’, we should complain about programmers talking about genetic or evolutionary algorithms. Or computer ‘vision’ and ‘sensing’. Just because the machines do not yet meet all the criteria of life does not mean they will not at some point. After all, mixing this with some of the rep-rap reproducibility could result in a machine that would be a very basic form of life.

    As a engineer-in-training, the pneumatic oscillator built from not gates was very interesting. Studying how he uses that to act as the clock cycle for the rest of the beast’s mechanics was worth the wait of his talk.

  7. He’s been working on this project for about twenty years now, I think. It’s really cool to see the creations from up close. He’s from Delft, where I live, and gave a talk some months ago. The legs are impressive, but that he did twenty years ago. The air-based logic system is at least as impressive.

    He’s built an asymmetrical NOR-gate from PVC pipes, tubes and bottles. It’s really, really impressive to see. He has timers based on slow leakage, and pumps for energy storage, incredible stuff.

    And, yes, indeed, for the press there’s a lot of talk about artificial life, but in private he’s just an awesome engineering artist.

  8. @Larz – brilliant!!

    Yeah guys, chill out. Hes a nut, but a loveable nut who makes f*cking cool gadgets – at least he is not using an Arduino – that would really get you all fired up.

    He does state at the end that they can’t survive without his help yet, so the further up about what happens if it hits a bush etc didn’t listen.

    He calls them ‘animals’ I think working on this project for 16 years will do this to you, but if thats what it takes to keep him motivated, I say go for it. Christ, I got bored of my Arduino and hacking about 4 weeks after I started.

  9. I think the main thing some people who posted above have missed that the fact that the guy thinks more like an artist than engineer. Hence why he tends to anthropomorphism/Zoomorphism his projects. The engneers mind doesn’t really think that way They/we tend to me more autistic about thing, ie we see Object as just that objects.

    I hope this makes like it did in my head:)

  10. Why does everyone have a problem with him calling this “living”? It’s a (somewhat) self-sustaining thing that has surprisingly complex functions and reactions to external stimuli. Its actions are just as complex, if not more complex, than many single-celled organisms. These things may not be totally independent right now, but that is obviously this guy’s goal. What makes them different from other “living” things?

  11. Here’s a deal,

    you guys keep up with the amazing engineering, hacking and programming of wonderful gizmo’s and we philosophers will continue to work out semantics and ontology.

    Listening to engineering types try to philosophize is like listening to nails on a chalkboard.

  12. @Renee: Listening to philosophers at all is about as useful and giving as listening to Rick Astley over and over.

    Get over yourself. Of the millions upon millions of self-proclaimed “philosophers” through the ages, only a handful are considered to have contributed enough to even be remembered by name.

    Theo Jansen is creating stuff! AMAZING stuff! Mindblowingly complex stuff from simple, everyday items. Let’s face it.. you’re pissing on his parade because you know as well as anyone else that “philosophers” don’t make any difference. ;)

  13. Huh? I’m not bashing him, I’m defending him.

    That’s all I was getting at really. It wasn’t meant to be a serious blow to you guys or anything.

    It’s just funny to see people arguing about what constitutes life.

    Are ethics not useful? What about the theoretical underpinning of computer science? All philosophy.

    I doubt a name like Spinoza is a household one but that doesn’t mean those unnamed ones didn’t contribute.

    Your post is so uninformed I’m having a hard time telling if its satire or not.

  14. @Renee:

    I’m sorry, my post got away from me. =P

    I’m just saying, people who do nothing but think and argue sound a lot like politicians, and we all know how useful they are. ;)

    Besides, saying we need philosophers for logic or ethics is to me like saying we need religion for morale and compassion.

    As to what constitutes life.. Science has got that covered, right? True, it is a matter of semantics*, but philosophers generally concern themselves with things less corporeal than hard science, right? I’d be hard pressed to see the difference between a philosopher who is into theoretical physics, and a theoretical physicist. =P

    *Like the term “A.I.”. I mean, why would a human-like intelligence on/in a different medium be “artificial”? A computer is a computer, and firmware is firmware. As a sentient being, it is of little import to me whether my brain is made from carbon-based neurons or a silicone-based computer.

  15. hehe… neat stuff.

    I once built an LED flashing hat which exhibited interesting behaviour (used the classic transistor shift register).
    Something like this with alternating outputs hooked up via a driver stage to small motors would be an amusing “walker”, BEAM style.

    interestingly, simple circuits like this can generate complex behaviours if feedback/feedforward is implemented using small capacitors (presence of several small inputs causes the output to change state)..

    just my $0.04 worth (adjusted for inflation)

  16. It would be nice if the people who have the smarts to make things like this actually spent time making useful things that would help other people, rather than just themselves.

  17. @PlastBox: you’re making a philosophical argument, so your argument annihilates itself.

    @Renee: Baruch is my fave. And someone who had a very tough life. Philosophy is a difficult enterprise.

    I’ve got no problems with this guy calling his stuff alive or an animal.

    If you want to push ontological arguments feel free, but I’ve yet to see any strongly useful ontologys (there’s a pun in there for philosophical types). Anyway, this is a technocracy – go build something better than this guy did and then we’ll listen to you.

  18. @snide:

    Sweet circular logic there, friend! I can’t argue against philosophy in any way, because any argument I make will be a philosophical one?

    That just puts philosophy even more firmly in the same box as religion where one is tempted to use science to argue against something that isn’t science, because the alternative is using religion to argue religion. Former choice “validates” religion as science in the eyes of the devout, the latter obviously fails as you can’t argue against fairies with unicorns.

    Man, these posts get away from me today! =P

    Anyways, if you are stating that any person with the ability to reflect upon things is in fact a philosopher, then I have no choice but to agree that philosophers are useful. How can they not be, if every somewhat intelligent person around fits the classification? =P

  19. I think without going into any of that you can still call philosophy useful.

    Something like engineering and philosophy aren’t that different.

    The ways in which engineers use diodes, resistors etc as well as the different theories and laws surrounding electrical engineering all in the effort of either creating something new or reverse engineering things is comparable to the methods of philosophers.

    Philosophers use things like logic and mathematics as well as epistemological, metaphysical and ethical theories and axioms to either create something new or reverse engineer a statement, belief and/or ideology my way of breaking it down into its constituent parts.

    I don’t consider someone who tinkers with an arduino or does hacking on the weekend to be a full blown engineer. Perhaps an amateur one depending.

    Likewise I also don’t consider anyone who thinks about something really hard or intelligently to be a philosopher, perhaps an amateur one depending on the method.

    In the end philosophy, in itself,is still absolutely important. However due to the nature of it you don’t often see tangible results. Usually because the philosopher passes on the thing to someone else to actualize it.

    Such as the mathematicians and philosophers who conceived of formal logic, multiple realizability and computational theory which then got passed along to the engineers who turned those theories into practical applications.

    However most people just assume philosophy to be random ramblings about reality not being real and stuff like that.

  20. I apologize for my ignorance when it comes to what philosophy really is. You know.. what is the essence of what a philosopher does?

    Theory of Computation pops up here as something philosophers have contributed to. Checking Wikipedia, 6 people are noted as the most important pioneers in this field. Of said genii, 5 were mathematicians and one, Avram Noam Chomsky, was a “..linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, political activist..”.

    No doubt a great mind, but Wikipedia seems to make a rather clear distinction between mathematics and philosophy. I know what a mathematician does, so what then does a philosopher do?

    A mathematician thinks about and works with maths.
    A theoretical physicist tries to work out theories that fit the physical world.
    An anthropologist studies people, be it psychology, behavior, culture or the social interworkings of groups.

    Those are the least “tangible” sciences that comes to mind right now. If a philosopher is (as Wikipedia implies) someone rather apart from the above mentioned practitioners, what exactly does he/she do?

    Well, except for randomly rambling about shadows on cave walls and such. ;)

  21. The comparison to the Professor on GI is interesting. I would like to see him be more like the Professor (and greener at the same time) by using bamboo and other natural materials, wherever possible.

  22. Math is tricky really.

    For example something like Set Theory is mathematical in that you can derive numbers and their relations from it but its also an ontological hierarchy that applies to metaphysics, etc and is thus useful to philosophers.

    Calculus was invented not only to account for certain problems in math but it was also invented to explain certain metaphysical and epistemological concerns as well.

    Mathematics being its own distinct branch is a relatively new, like within the 20th century new, concept.

    In short, I wouldn’t really trust Wikipedia. It’s great for simple things but the more complex the topic the far more likely it is to not be accurate.

  23. first time i’ve seen these things. frickin’ awesome. i second that motion to use bamboo and other natural materials. not because i’m a green freak, but because it would introduce several different aspects to the strandbeests. remember those self-enclosed life-globe ecosystem things? the bamboo, over time, will decay, much like a living body. a solar/water still system (with algae, maybe?) could provide heat which can be used as for the high-ish pressure side of a diaphram pump, and run-off moisture could serve as lubricant on the joints (sand gets everywhere). different colors of materials to identify successive “evolutions” of design, and combinations to note mixing of different types. i bet, with a little more thinking, the things could be designed to be able to turn. if the binary step counter can compute dry sand/water distances, it may be possible to set it up to turn, say 90*, at the midway-point once that calculation has been determined. they’d be able to rove up and down the coast, instead of just surf-to-shore jaunts.

    oh, by the way, 4 + 3 = 7 is useless all by its lonesome. this means math is useless, just like philosophy… right up until someone does something with the calculations they’ve been scribbling, or the thoughts they’ve been pondering.

    just my 2 cents.

  24. I am always very skeptical to AI and AL. As a student of philosophy I must say however that these creatures are really intriguing as ambassadors of artificial life.

    It is artificial, as in an (man made) artifact, but it is life in that it is based on the same primary functions of simpler life. Get nutrition, stay alive. All it needs to go away from the “artificial podium” is the ability to replicate and develop itself.

    Just imagine when these critters will be able to look after themselves, and you meet one one dark afternoon. It will be like meeting a giant alien insect, and your instincts will treat it as an animal (unexpected, unpredictable and possibly dangerous).

    I for one, welcome our multi-legged sand dune overlords!

  25. Jansen calling his creations as “animals” is no different than, say computer graphics researchers (such as Karl Sims) calling the agents in their a-life simulations as “creatures”. At the end of the day, who cares? It still doesn’t change the fact that these are great examples of technical know-how and novel application of ideas.

  26. yes, engineering is useless unless something is engineered. get it? once someone comes up with an idea and actually puts that idea to use or shares it with another that puts it to use, it is simply a thought. if you, i, or anybody comes up with a great idea, but does not disseminate that information, then it is wasted. if i think it, then act on it, then it is of value. the number 5 is an intangible, unless you’re, say, counting objects. a shade of the color blue is an intangible, unless you paint your wall that color. these strandbeests were nothing but a thought at one point. it wasn’t until the thinker put a bunch of pvc pipes and lemonade bottles together did it become a reality.

    had another thought on the evolution of these strandbeests. put the legs, or a group of legs, into a quadrapedal configuration. the “backbone” section could be used for a simple autonomous load carrier. think giant bees. hell, figure out a blade rotor setup and you have a legged lawnmower. another, or the same one, with a clamshell bucket could distribute the mown grass into piles. another, or again, the same one, could then “ingest” the clippings and use the heat of the mulch to power itself. it could then deposit the composted mulch in different areas of your yard. you’d have a strandbeest with a rudimentary metabolic/digestive system.

  27. @Renee and PlastBox:
    Philosophy is very much tangible. See how we literally use Aristotle’s grammar (and built-in logical categories) in every single sentence we make, every day. Aristotle is very much _forming_ our way of thinking some two thousand three hundred years after his death.

    There are traces of our philosophical heritage everywhere. It just takes a while to see it, since it’s right in our faces.

  28. I meant tangible in the literal sense of holding an item in your hand, not how we use it.

    After all I did mention logic gates, I know how important philosophy is but to most people, value is judged by material worth.

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