Excerpted with permission from Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy, by David A. Mindell. Available from Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright David A. Mindell © 2015.
On a summer day in 1988, two years after the Titanic exploration, I walked down the stairs of an old, green aluminum building in Woods Hole with a small painted sign out front: “Deep Submergence Laboratory.” Looking for a job, I was there to meet Skip Marquet, one of the original Alvin engineers and cofounder of the lab with Robert Ballard, the scientist best known as the discoverer of the wreck of the Titanic. Touring the lab, I saw exotic robots, heavypressure housings, and other things foreign to me. “This has been inside the Titanic,” Marquet said as he pointed out Jason Jr., a remotely operated undersea vehicle, opened up on a lab bench with its electronic guts pulled out.
But inside those robots, and surrounding them, were things deeply familiar—electronics, microprocessors, software manuals. In a moment, I was hooked—I could bring my skills and passions to this unusual, alien endeavor. Eager to travel the world doing engineering, build electronics that would find their way into extreme places, and not have to report to work in a cubicle, I joined the Deep Submergence Lab as a junior engineer.
What was it like to operate a robot in the deep ocean? First of all, we should qualify the term “robot.” The term was commonly used for the vehicle, but there was very little resembling autonomy about the vehicle. In fact, it was something of a blank slate, technically speaking. There was relatively little computing power on board, only enough to flick the lights and instruments on and off, turn on the thrusters, and do a little other housekeeping. Video signals went straight up the optical fibers, and most of the instrument data was simply multiplexed through the computer on Jason to go up to the top for processing. Even when Jason was doing something “automatic”—such as holding at a constant depth—the feedback loops were closed through a computer on the ship.
Physically, too, it looked neither sleek nor humanlike. The top half was a solid block of specialized foam for floatation while the bottom half was a mess of railing, pressure housings, and wires. Parts of it were held together by duct tape and hose clamps.
Despite the grandiose, human name, very little of the robot was anthropomorphic, but if you squinted you could begin to make out a kind of face at the front where the cameras were concentrated and the manipulator arms did their work. A better analogy for Jason was a telescope—it was something you looked through. In fact, when it worked best, it was invisible, as it were, allowing the people on the surface to see the seafloor and forget about the medium of transmission. This was the key to the sense of presence.
Jason also drew the surface ship—one of humankind’s oldest mobile, manned vehicles—into a closer relationship with the robot. With Jason, the ship and the robot were always tied together by the cable, and had to be precisely coordinated. We would wire a computer connection from the control van up to the ship’s positioning system, so the navigator in the Jason van on the back deck would have control of the ship. One click on the PC keyboard, and the ship would move a few meters forward, or to the left, or in a slow straight track line.
Down below ran the big cable, then Medea (a miniature camera sled), and then Jason. A lot to keep track of—displayed on a navigation screen running a custom piece of software Dana Yoerger wrote and then customized for each trip and modified constantly during a cruise. “It’s a ballet,” Martin Bowen observed; he likened it to an arcade video game, except instead of putting in quarters every few minutes you were putting in thousanddollar bills.
Jason’s control room consisted of five or six twentyseveninch video and computer monitors mounted on the wall, displaying imagery from Jason’s multiple cameras, and navigation data. A series of control stations were arranged beneath them—one for the pilot, one for an engineer who monitored the vehicle’s systems and controlled the cable winch, and one for the navigator. A data logger changed videotapes and logged all activity. This left plenty of room in the van for a chief scientist, who usually sat directly behind the pilot to direct the dive, and ten or twenty other people—other scientists, engineers, graduate students, and film teams from the media.
When all was stable, though, the whole control van would become concentrated on the seafloor. “Now, that’s the world of telepresence,” Bowen said. “That’s where I forget about my body, and I project myself onto the ocean floor, and I have to make that vehicle dance.”
New fiberoptic cables, digital transmission, and the very best broadcastquality video cameras helped transport us into this other world. But this presence, or what Ballard called telepresence, was not simply a product of the technical imaging. In fact, by today’s standards the imaging was primitive, being oldfashioned color TV quality rather than digital high definition.
Presence on the seafloor deeply related to what was going on in that darkened control room. As Jason pinged and photographed its way around shipwreck sites, hydrothermal vents, or other sites, the group in the control room was in constant conversation, observing, questioning, speculating on what the cameras and sensors showed. This constant, realtime seminar about the ongoing exploration, combined with the beautiful, haunting images we were seeing, is what transported us into another world. Sometimes, if someone would bump into your chair in the control room, for a moment you’d be convinced that the robot down below had crashed into a rock—until you “woke up” and untangled your body from your mind. This is what the manned submarines could never replicate; this was what the robots did for us. While our bodies have never physically been to many of these sites, our minds and imaginations spent days and days there, and we had a deep sense of their underwater landscapes.