If I pedal faster and feed it spinach, my robot barman might pull more pints

Something for the Weekend, Sir? Help me up, would you, luvvie?

Like any child of the Sixties, I dreamt a future of spaceships and robots, not of fat-arsed celebs, whinging royals and the manipulation of the feeble-minded by nationalists whose wealth accumulates off-shore. After growing up, I looked back to realise I had been dreaming in sci-fi cloudland during the nightmarish events of the era: the Vietnam War, race riots, Watergate, the oil crisis, and Jimmy Savile presenting Top of the Pops.

The horror.

It wasn’t all bad. The moon missions stamped my imagination into reality, as did the eventual invention of smartphones. I had dreamt of one day having my own Star Trek communicator, you see. While friends from better-heeled families than mine would get walkie-talkies for Christmas, I would make do with my Dad’s discarded cigarette boxes – the prototypal flip phone.

Not sunshine, moonlight or good times – blame it on the buggy


Apparently now we’re all hooked on our mobiles. I’m told they kill off our ability to socialise and they secretly inform GAFAM how many squirts of deodorant we apply to each pit, but I don’t care. Smartphones are fucking ace.

Robots are already here but only recently are they getting robotty enough for my tastes. A proper sci-fi robot isn’t one that does something useful, such as in a manufacturing plant. My dreams of the future were filled with robots that did things that were either perfectly useless or easily replaced by a more skilled human. Housekeepers, for instance, or note-takers or customer service assistants – the kind of robots you see in the pages of 2000AD.

So I was over the moon to read this week about a British operation that has created a “robotically optimised bartender”.

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I love the idea of all that technology, all that brain power, all that standing on shoulders, is leading us into a brave era in which I can be served cocktails by ED-209.

To get there, I’ve now reached an age where, they say, one grunts when standing up and whispers “nyaaaah” when sitting down. That’s the theory, anyway. I judge my progress along life’s journey of decrepitude by the content of targeted advertising. I don’t mean digital ads, by the way, as they are always bonkers thanks to a little mischievous data misdirection, a pastime that amuses me.

No, I mean direct mail that arrives through the letterbox. Printed, hand-delivered direct advertising is expensive so they make an extra effort to target me accurately. For example, at the end of my 20s, I started receiving ads for baby-changing mats and soft-play toys. When I began to get thin on top, my letterbox would overflow with invitations to test-drive sports cars.

This year, I was tracked down to my new abode and started receiving the infamous Modern Man catalogue in my favourite new language. Its pages are filled with “night-time sunglasses” (no, I have no idea either), digital weather stations and corduroy trousers. It’s always good for a laugh.

Still, nothing quite prepared me for what I received this week…

Zimmer frames in mail order catalogue

I’ll take the one with racing stripes please

Look down the bottom right of the photo and you’ll see they also thoughtfully included an ad for walking sticks. This means once I can no longer manipulate the hoist to lift me up to my zimmer, I will still have something with which to beat myself to death.

I don’t think I’m ready for a zimmer or a stick. Maybe I won’t even reach that age but you never know. When I was younger and had enough hair to spike, creative types still had the common courtesy to pop their clogs at precisely 27 years old. These days, boomers fully expect to linger indefinitely and consider it worthy of a public inquiry should they be cruelly ripped from their families while still in their prime in their early 90s.

If I do get that far, I’m hoping by then zimmers will have been replaced by another of my dreams of the future: powered exoskeletons. I would be perfectly happy to receive catalogues filled with Gundams and Appleseed-like options.

The nearest I can get at the moment is the industrial Mate exoskeleton or the low-end equivalents designed to help nurses move morbidly fat bastard patients between beds. Mate will be launching a new model next week so I’m crossing my Meccano digits it’ll make its way into L’homme moderne.

Anyway, the zimmer catalogue was enough to scare me back to the gym… not that it is possible to go to a gym at the moment. Second lockdown means many forms of keeping healthy are either discouraged or illegal. In France, right up until this weekend, you can be fined heavily for jogging more than 10 minutes in a single direction from your front door. And you need to carry ID and an attestation – a time-stamped permission form stating your reason for daring to breathe outdoors – to show gendarmes who were attracted by your loping running style and want to have a laugh at your hair band and leg-warmers.

Second lockdown has been a great opportunity for some. A baker in northern France began selling baguettes wrapped in attestations instead of plain paper or plastic, and found that customers who used to turn up twice a week were now visiting daily.

Supermarket chain Monoprix even started taking the piss out of the arbitrary governmental guidelines on what amounts to essential and non-essential goods. For example, clothing for infants is permitted during lockdown, but other clothing is not. If you visit a Monoprix before Saturday, you’ll see a sign in the clothing aisle: “Clothes for children under 3 years old are considered essential. Other children are urged to stop growing.”

Also deemed non-essential are baby feeding bottles. Monoprix signs read: “We should have been warned to stop making babies during the first lockdown.”

In the end, I invested in an indoor exercise bike. All that effort seems like a bit of a waste so I am looking in to ways of channelling my leg-spinning energy into battery storage. Combined with a couple of solar panels, Mme D and I might just be able to generate enough to recharge our phones, tablets and laptops every day.

I’ve even heard of research that involved using spinach as a precursor for high-performance catalysts required for the oxygen reduction reactions in fuel cells. A combination of lots of indoor cycling and consumption of spinach might leave us somewhat saddlesore but I’m willing to give it a go. If it’s good enough for Popeye, etc.

By the time they open bars again in France – late January by the look of it – I will no longer be able to sit on a bar stool without saying “nyaaaa” or more likely screaming “fuckingshitbuggeration”. That exoskeleton could come in real handy.

ED-209? Mine’s a pint of IPA, ta.

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Alistair Dabbs

Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He has found that the indoor exercise bike counts calories at the same rate regardless of which level you set the resistance. This is great news as it means he can take it easy during exercise for a change. More at Autosave is for Wimps and @alidabbs.

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