The poetry of spam

Of tiny robots, Danny Dunn, and geek poetry

Seiko Epson has just invented the world’s smallest flying robot. No word on how light it is, but I’m guessing it’s measured in grams. According to Epson’s web site, the robot …

… causes levitation by use of contra-rotating propellers powered by an ultra-thin, ultrasonic motor with the world’s highest*4 power-weight ratio and can be balanced in mid-air by means of the world’s first*5 stabilizing mechanism using a linear actuator. Furthermore, the essence of micromechatronics has been brought together in high-density mounting technology to minimize the size and weight of the circuitry’s control unit.

Okay, that’s enough technical jargon for me. But now for the inevitable digression:

This robot reminds me oddly of the sci-fi Danny Dunn series I read as a kid. Danny was the nephew of an eccentric scientist who was always inventing stuff that was deeply cool — and, what’s more, stuff that eerily presaged modern technology by about 20 years. In one book, Dunn commandeered his uncle’s ENIAC-style computer to help do his homework. (In another one, he used “antigravity paint” to travel to Saturn … so, okay, the predictive accuracy of these novels isn’t really all that hot.)

But one novel stood out: Danny Dunn, Invisible Boy. Dunn’s uncle invents a tiny flying robot that’s shaped like a dragonfly; a user dons a helmet and gloves with haptic force-feedback sensors (!), so that he or she can see everything the dragonfly sees and actually feel everything the dragonfly feels as it flits about, spying on people. The Epson robot is amazingly close to this construction, and in fact, the overall model — telepresence via teensy flying spybots — is something that the military is actively investigating as a new spy tool.

Here’s an even bigger digression. While surfing around for Danny Dunn resources (I can’t believe I just typed that sentence), I happened upon what is surely a literary first: A Danny Dunn poem — an existential meditation on failed marriages that is written in the voice of the boy genius. And what’s even more fucked up is that the poem’s actually kind of good. It’s crammed full of so many Dunn references that virtually no-one but the geeks who read all those books will understand it, but if you do, it’s really kind of chilling. It’s called “Danny Dunn and the Heartbreak Machine”, and it’s written by Chris Tannlund.

And who, you may ask, is Chris Tannlund? Well, to plant the needle on the Surreal-O-Meter here, I should point out that in addition to being a pretty good poet, he’s “an independent Missouri-based UFO investigator.”

(Thanks to Slashdot for finding that robot item!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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