The Electric Caterpillar

Unshakable is the axiom, “If you can imagine it, somebody has probably already done it.” Once again the old truism has reared its tiny, robotic head. 

Whilst reveling in all my clever absurdity last week in regards to my previous blog entry, (See “The Electric Monk” September 23rd), specifically the part about the spider who owns a bunch of tiny robot spiders to build webs for him in order to increase his moth-based wealth and influence, I happened upon a real science article about a research institute in Poland that is currently building tiny robot caterpillars.

I felt myself reflexively annoyed at the odd coincidence, even though one thing had absolutely nothing to do with the other. It’s not like I was going to be denied royalties, or somehow lose my place in the pantheon of hallowed satirists. Firstly, there is no place to lose and secondly, odds are any plagiarism charge would surely be leveled at me, since the robot caterpillars have probably been in the development (larval?) stages for years, while my conjuring of a mechanical spider arrived haphazardly last Thursday after a night of heavy drinking, and required nothing more than a little imagination and a few written lines for it to spring into theoretical action. If actually tasked to build a robot spider I would have no clue where to start.

The best part of the robot caterpillar article, though, was when the Polish scientist was asked WHY someone would build a tiny robot caterpillar, the fellow seemed to get all defensive. He lashed out impatiently that they could probably be used as some kind of “medicine delivery system.” I immediately had the image of a bulky pill strapped to the back of a slinky inchworm as it trundled its way up to somebody’s front door and with a tiny knock, announced the delivery of ONE tablet of aspirin.

“But I ordered two,” the customer would complain.

“Ah jeez, alright,” the inchworm would say. “This really messes up my delivery schedule. Now I have to head back to the pharmacy, fill out some paperwork, and then I’ll be back with the complete order.” (Checking his wristwatch.) “You’ll receive your second tablet of aspirin right about this time next year!”

The scientist clarified that the delivery system he envisioned had to do with targeted organ systems within the body. Which seemed a bit more reasonable, until it was pointed out that the robot caterpillars are powered by solar energy, which would mean that the tiny creature would run out of juice somewhere around the uvula, at which time the person could simply swallow medicine, caterpillar and all, and have it delivered the old-fashioned way.

The scientist was getting fed up. He finally erupted that he was a genius, the rest of the public were damn fools, and why did everything always have to do something, and with a few Polish insults he ran off, strapped a set of colorful wings to his back, and clumsily flew away, only to be hit by the windshield of a speeding bus about a hundred feet up. It took like thirty wiper swipes and a steady stream of washer fluid to clear him off.   

Medicine and warfare are usually the two safest justifications for any scientific experiments. If an inventor wants to keep the flow of funding open he simply has to suggest his invention can be sent into the healthcare system or into battle. Which again, might be a stretch for our friend the caterpillar. They are not very good fighters. It takes them an eternity just to shuffle from one side of a picnic table to the other, and even then they usually stop in confusion at the edge and turn back around. They are ill-designed to carry artillery, and dispatching them to defoliate a forest would take fifty years. The caterpillar leads a meandering life, which has no place in the high-tech, work-til-you-drop ethos of the modern world. They are in no rush. They don’t cower to anger, urgency, or sarcasm.

“I move faster with two feet than you do with a hundred feet,” a belligerent foreman might yell at them when productivity is lagging.

“It’s not the feet slowing me down. It’s the big asshole in front of me,” the now unemployed caterpillar would murmur, heading off to drink himself stupid at the nearest saloon.

Like many people in middle management, the caterpillars seem to have no specific, pragmatic purpose other than to just be there. They are not great predators, nor are they great artists. Maybe that is the point. I might be interested in buying some robotic caterpillars to show me a zen alternative to all life’s stress and worry. They don’t freak out. They take their time. They rarely appear agitated. And even when they change into magnificent robot butterflies they can fill my backyard, turn it into a kind of serene paradise. I could spend my days in white shorts, knee socks and a panama hat, catching them in a net, getting my fill of fresh air and genteel exercise. On second thought, Mr. Polish Scientist, I’d like to invest. We could call them “betterflies” instead of “butterflies.” We could employ local artists to design wing patterns. We can sell them to every spring wedding around the globe. Now I’ve just got to wait for the scientist to heal up and emerge from his cocoon of a full plaster body cast so we can get to work. No time to lose. We’ve got insects to mass produce.

More Alembics to come. 


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