Jonathan Tippett wants human beings to maintain control over our technology. He’s making that point by building a nearly 8,000-pound robot or, as he calls it, an “anti-robot” called Prosthesis. It’s currently a work in progress, but as a massive bot that responds to a user’s body movements, it should evoke a real-life Pacific Rim mech-suit when it’s finished. While it won’t be grappling with kaiju anytime soon, Tippett says its actual uses are vast and yet undreamt.
This isn’t Tippett’s first mechanical rodeo. You may remember him and his group of fellow mechanical engineers as the minds behind the Mondo Spider, a giant robotic arachnid seen on TV shows like Junkyard Wars. I spoke to Tippett, who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, about his approach to building huge art/science projects, and about how it all started at Burning Man.
Sean Hutchinson: You’re the co-founder of eatART, a place for you to work with many collaborators that seems to stress art over science. Can you explain how that lab works and how it’s organized?
Jonathan Tippett: So at the eatART foundation, which stands for Energy Awareness Through Art, our mandate is to support the creation of large-scale, technically sophisticated artwork that’s used for educational purposes, specifically to educate people on alternative energy technology. The art aspect is to get people’s attention in an entertaining and inspiring way, and then you sneak in a little education about the technology that makes those crazy things possible. We operate on a hybrid of incubator, fundraiser, and donor funding. Most of the projects in the eatART portfolio are owned by the artists, and they’re responsible for funding and building their own teams.
The Mondo Spider was one of the original financial engines for the foundation. It was basically a founding member and helped pay the rent by doing deployments around the world with volunteer crews who donated their time for the experience and in support of eatART.
The kind of projects that you delve into are ambitious. Why do you think you’re attracted to large-scale stuff?
The interest in large-scale is a function of each individual eatART co-founder. We coalesced around the desire to push the boundaries around artwork because we’re all engineers. The majority of the founders are very technical people, so part of the excitement for us was to utilize our skills, which are so often just applied to pragmatic applications, and create something wonderful and exciting.
How did you get started on the Mondo Spider project and now on your new project, Prosthesis?
Mondo Spider was inspired by our mutual and independent attendance at Burning Man, actually. I had been to Burning Man a couple of years in a row at that stage, and I saw a pair of mechanical legs that were 10 feet tall. They were basically the lower torso of a Tyrannosaurus Rex in sculpture form. It was a cool sculpture, but it was totally not mechanized. I’d been building walking machines out of Legos since I was a kid. I thought, “Wait a minute, I’m an engineer now, I can build machines, and this is a venue that will honor that effort. So I’m going to build a giant waking machine and bring it to Burning Man and it’ll be amazing.” This was Prosthesis.
I came back in September, Junkyard Wars rolled around in October or so, and I was like, “Sorry, guys, I’m making a giant walking machine.” And they’re like, “Well, actually, this year’s Junkyard Wars challenge is to build a walking machine.” I was like, “OK, fine!” And thank God I made that decision because that was the year I met everyone. That’s the year that Mondo Spider team formed and then went on to build together.
Why do you think Burning Man attracts like-minded individuals like that?
It’s a safe space to get your freak on [laughs]. Most very intelligent people have an inner freak. Burning Man becomes this natural gathering point for intelligent, often slightly misunderstood, disenfranchised, countercultural types of people who find a comfortable place to party, to be odd, to be aggressive, and have their creative efforts recognized. Sometimes it’s called “Nerding Man.” Anytime you have a situation like that, you get some magic happening.
You said the T-Rex sculpture you saw gave you the idea for Prosthesis. How did you shift your focus from Mondo Spider to that?
My early drawings of Prosthesis predate Mondo Spider. And I got tempted away by this opportunity to build a walking machine with a bunch of really cool people who then became my engineer tribe.
We were just hoping to get the spider done. We ended up traveling the world with it. I ended up devoting four years of my life to promoting and sharing and exhibiting the spider and building the eatART Foundation. Then when interest in the Mondo Spider partly cooled off I started to get the itch. I was like, “OK, this was great, but I need to build that thing that I set out to build in 2005.”
Has the design process for Prosthesis changed since your first drawings?
The design process hasn’t changed, but it has evolved as the tools have improved. The Solidworks software has improved exponentially and we just got a sponsorship from them so a lot of my team is trained up on analysis tools. We’re able to do much more heavy engineering work. We got a sponsorship from Lenovo which gave us some kickass computers. So the tools we have improved substantially, but the design process and the fundamental design is similar even to the Mondo Spider. Prosthesis is a basic tubular, steel structure using the same off-the-shelf hydraulics. Steel is safe, reliable, cost-effective. It’s a great material for engineering projects at this level.
Your website describes Prosthesis as an anti-robot. What does that mean and how does that mentality work into the idea of what you’re trying to build?
I didn’t necessarily set out thinking the world or Burning Man needed a two-story-tall walking machine. I set out thinking human beings in general needed another remarkable experience. I had to call it an anti-robot because I needed to highlight the fact that it wasn’t about the machine, it wasn’t about the robotics-ness of it — it was about the pilot. It’s about the skill, the challenge, the rewarding nature of operating it.
That speaks to a trend that I find concerning, which is that technology is being applied unchecked to anything and everything we do with the unquestioned assumption that it’s going to be better that way, and that the more we can get machines to do for us the better our lives will be. At some point you can go too far with that. There’s nothing engaging left to do; everything is a spoonfed package experience. That undermines human agency and it threatens to ultimately sort of strip the quality out of life through eliminating the notion of an earned experience. So it’s intentionally going to be challenging to operate and by doing so it will be intentionally rewarding to master. That’s what the anti-robot is all about.
Have you thought about what you’ll do when it’s completed? Will you follow the same path of bringing it to different places, like you did with the Mondo Spider?
That’s the default plan. The fallback position is to operate it like we did the spider. It’ll live here at the eatART lab, we’ll bring it out to contribute to eatART’s mandate at local school gigs and science fairs, and maybe music festivals and trade shows and stuff like that. I’ll just keep my ear to the ground for opportunities.
Do you think Prosthesis could have a practical use?
I’m constantly being asked about practical applications and I think it’s just a matter of time until I seek it out or an opportunity seeks me out to evolve this singular art project into something practical, or even to develop it as an entertainment piece. The one real dream is to spawn an actual league of racing robots.
Has anyone already sought you out to use it for practical applications?
When most people ask about what it’s for, I’m like, “I don’t know, what’s your body good for? What’s a four-limbed, fully articulated ambulatory framework good for?” You name it, it’s good for it. Something of this actual scale obviously has limitations, but the technology is scaleable and the concept is widely applicable. You’ve got your classic Alien mech-suit scenario, or maybe search-and-rescue stuff; obviously there’s military ideas. Although the military is trying to get human beings out of the combat field, and for moral and ethical reasons I would not be willing to work with the military on a weaponized platform of any sort.
What are the next steps on the Prosthesis?
Build the whole thing. There is a build schedule and workflow that I filled out, which basically all of the technological questions have been answered by the alpha leg. It’s a full proven concept: The control system is proven, the suspension is proven, the fundamental concept that you can control something while you’re being rag-dolled on top of it has been proven. We’ve ridden on the alpha leg and it’s stable and you can keep control over it.
So the rough outline is build the legs, then build the fuselage, put the guts in the fuselage, put the legs on the fuselage and walk away.