War of the Robots (Russian Popular Science - Feb 2010)

by Tim Skorenko translated by Eva Galperin

The War Robots of Mark Pauline


As any futurist knows, in 300 years armies will vanish from the face of the Earth and all interplanetary conflict will be resolved by remote-controlled robots. If you believe the creators of the Terminator movies, at some point the machines will rise up against their creators. We will have to wait some time for that, but the first steps have already been taken.


Allow me to introduce Mark Pauline: Master of Terminators. In 1978, Mark was young and pugnacious. His love of death machines was realized in Survival Research Laboratories, an organization which exists to this day. On one hand, SRL is interested in performances like circus or rodeo, but what sets Mark PaulineÕs performances apart is that they are realistic and dangerous for both the audience and the creator. It is no coincidence that the fire department of San Francisco, after thirty years of conflict, ran the troublemaker out of the city. Pauline and his lab had to move to the more tolerant California city of Petaluma. So why was the city government so antagonistic to his art?




PaulineÕs shows are better experienced than described. First, you see dˇcor, grim post-apocalyptic, resembling the ruins of a huge steel mill or a train station. For example, the set of the Amsterdam show of 1988 included a huge mountain of old television and radio sets, railroad cars on tracks, a couple of buses and cars which did not survive the show, and about fifteen buildings and other structures.


Now the action starts. Movement begins simultaneously in several points of space. Destroying a building with his entrance comes a rusty robot on wheels, whose tentacles try to crush everything within reach. From the other end of the stage enters a steel lizard with a flamethrower for a head, which tries to destroy the robot and everything around it with fire. All around, smaller robots are scurrying about, crushed under the threads and wheels or larger robots in a mess of cogs and parts. On opposite corners of the stage, there are machine guns and rocket launchers, constantly shooting ordinance across the stage. Because of their carefully-planned trajectories, spectators are not in danger.


ItÕs not very interesting to watch robot gladiators fight from one spot, because there are many foci of fights, From any position, you can see a couple of dozen robots who are busy fighting each other, crushing buildings, setting things on fire, or just running around emitting light, flame, and noise. Fire is the main background of the show. Something is always on fire. And if itÕs not on fire, it means that it will surely be burning soon enough.

Pauline, however, uses every possible method of destruction, even electric shocks. ItÕs breathtaking to see robots throwing lightning at one another.


There is something unbalanced about PaulineÕs robots. For instance, they could have back suspension with wheels, but instead of front suspension, they have something that looks like stilts. The robot uses the stilts to storm the gate and attack the audience. Every show has elements of interaction.

Use of sound in PaulineÕs show is impressive. Naturally, loud noises, shooting, and explosions, are there, just like in Terminator, but there is always a musical element, from plaintive folk music to hard rock. Sometimes you hear blood-chilling howls and maniacal laughter that gives you the illusion that somewhere beneath the ruins, the last people on Earth are dying. Of course, no real people could be on the stage itÕs too dangerous.


In daylight, Mark PaulineÕs shows do not look as impressive, but they attract huge crowds nonetheless. Usually, these are small format shows within some festival or technical exhibition. There is no elaborate dˇcor for his day shows. The robots are simply kept behind a chain link fence, where they only kill their own kind.




Not all of the robots survive a show. Survivors undergo substantial repairs and then they are ready for the next battle. Some of the robots are unarmed and are not even attacked by their brethren in the scenario.


Pauline and his crew design every robot individually, describing its functions and its role in the script of the show. Naturally, robots are carefully tested. The most important thing is to ensure the safety of the audience. For instance, a badly-tuned firebomb-throwing catapult might miss and send its payload not into the house on stage but into a group of technicians -- or worse, into the audience. But rest assured that despite their awkward and sometimes comical appearance, SRL robots are precision machines.


Mark Pauline himself was injured several times during tests and shows. In 1982, he almost lost his right hand when it was hit by shrapnel. The hand was saved, but three fingers were lost.


Let us debunk one myth: SRL robots do not use live ammunition. There are no real grenades, no real bullets, no real frag mines. If Pauline would dare to include elements of real war into his show, he would have not only the fire department on his case, but the US Army as well. Of course, almost every one of MarkÕs robots is dangerous and if the operator wishes, they can inflict serious damage or even death. The probability of this happening is about the same as a car accident: yes, it is possible, it happens, but we still drive our cars.


The basic effect of the show is rather based on the menacing appearance of the robots, their perpetual movements and terrible noise. Cannons that make a respectable booming noise can perhaps destroy a stage prop, but are no serious match for a brick wall. Machine Design Magazine called PaulineÕs show Ņchoreographed chaos.Ó And in some sense, that is an apt definition. However, it does not reflect the fact that SRL still remains one of the most dangerous shows on Earth.


Of course, behind every mechanical monster, there are people -- engineers, technicians, and designers. And the audience is important, because who would make fighting robots without an audience to watch them? A long time ago, there were two types of SRL robots: radio-controlled and with a live operator inside. Today, there are no people inside of these robots ever and control is provided by computers. Some of PaulineÕs machines are completely autonomous and human operators do not interfere in their actions. Some of the robots are controlled by an operator who sits at a monitor in a control room.


One could not help but imagine how dangerous the same show would have been in the late 1970Õs, when we could only dream of computer-controlled robots. At that time, the operator had to be present on the stage, where any stray piece of shrapnel might slice his head off.




No matter how autonomous the mechanisms are, they are all controlled by humans. Pauline says that even in 1978, he had a vision of what his lab would be like today. His goal was to organize a war of robots against robots. Some could say that he did it for world peace, saving human lives, or for research purposes, but Mark Pauline says ŅI do it for my own entertainment,Ó and we believe him.


Like most good citizens, Mark does not avoid politics. Some of his shows have a more satirical than technical bent. For example, in the 1980Õs, he organized some small scale shows in which robots destroyed walls decorated with the head of Ronald Reagan. Reagan had a moveable jaw that imitated the PresidentÕs speech. With every flap of his jaw, the President belched out little rat-like robots and smoke. Even today, Mark includes critique of US politics in his shows. However, when he leaves the country, he does not air US dirty laundry. Mark has found himself in trouble with police several times because of his political and just plain dangerous bag of tricks. Often police would suddenly cancel a carefully prepared show, but Mark has never given up.


By the way, he is open to suggestions. We could invite him to take his show to Russia, just as it has already gone to Canada and Holland. Two important guarantees that he needs are a good venue for the show and clearance from the local police and fire department. The SRL team usually comes to the venue and breaks camp there. Every show requires eight weeks of preparation and two weeks to strike. The duration of the show is no more than two hours. MarkÕs team usually manages to do three to four shows a year.


In conclusion, it can be said that Mark Pauline is a great man. He has managed to turn war into a spectacle and to turn violence and destruction into entertainment. When he talks about his creations with love and affection, you might think that we were talking are teddy bears, not monstrous machines made for destruction. If in some distant future we find ourselves embroiled in a war with machines, if machines rise up against man and will bring upon us all of their destructive forces, we will know who started it: his name is Mark Pauline and he makes Terminators.