Friday, February 29, 2008

Undeserved Credit

Did you know that Jules Verne didn't invent all of the things we credit him for?  A lot of them -- like the modern submarine -- were on the drawing boards of engineers and designers at the time he wrote about them.  He simply took the one step further of pretending that they already existed.

Ever since then, science fiction writers have had the pleasant perk of getting credit for things that other people did before the writers wrote about them.

The most recent beneficiary of this process?  Me.

NASA is currently testing the Environmentally Non-Disturbing Under-ice Robotic Antarctic Explorer robot probe.  The ENDURANCE is an underwater vehicle whose descendants may someday explore the deep oceans of Europa (and whose namers are the front-runner for this year's Tortured Rationale for Acronym Silliness Haward).  The news item in Space.Com mentions my own Mitsubishi robot turbot, which was used in "Slow Life" to explore the oceans of Titan.

Very cool.  I like it.  But let's be honest here.  I stole the idea from Mitsubishi.  As per the BBC News item about their most recent, museum-grade robot fish.  

And they're not alone.  China's making great strides on the robofish front.  As is MIT.  I wasn't able to find any web footage of Mitsubishi's cool new fish, but here's the YouTube footage of what the Boys from Cambridge were able to come up with:

Not that I mind getting credit for other people's hard work.  I get a big kick out of it.  Just so long as we're all aware of exactly who's doing the heavy lifting here.



jprucher said...

I recently re-read "Slow Life", and realized that I totally missed the "turbot" pun the first time around. But the question the science fiction lexicographers all want to know the answer to is: Did you coin the word "robofish", or is that another case of fiction imitating science?

Michael Swanwick said...

Hum. Well. I certainly coined the word in the sense that when I wrote the story I wasn't thinking of anybody else's use of it.

But it's an obvious construction. SOMEbody surely used it before me, and quite possibly in print.

Good question. I sincerely apologize for having no answer.

Michael Swanwick said...

And I just right now did a quick Web search and find that the answer is a resounding NO! I do not get the credit for that particular neolexigenesis.

If you go to
2001/04/43317 -- note the date -- you'll find the headline"Robofish Act Like Reel Thing."

Since my story was published in 2002, it seems to be another case of fiction imitating cheap journalist puns.

Richard Mason said...

I don't know about "Robofish," but "Robotuna" is of ancient date... The MIT project by that name started in 1993.

I was about to share with you a little essay of mine on robot fish, when I discovered two things: (a) said essay is currently unavailable due to website vagaries beyond my control; (b) said unavailable essay is cited in Wikipedia! Fame has come knocking at last, to find nobody home.

Michael Swanwick said...

Oh, man, an essay on robot fish? That's got a geek level of 11. If it ever surfaces again, please let me know.

Richard Mason said...

Here is another story on robot fish terminology. In the late '90s, I and some fellow grad students decided we would try to foster a buzzword. We decided we would start referring to animalesque robots, e.g. a robot with fins instead of propellers, as "biomimetic" and see if it caught on. (Note I say "foster" not "coin"; I don't think we thought we'd invented the word, but we would try to raise it to stardom.)

And remarkably, "biomimetic" did seem to become a popular buzzword in the robotics community. I doubt this was really due to our efforts, which had been minor; more likely it was a coincidence, or a case of simultaneous invention.

A couple of years later I was at the International Symposium on Aqua Biomechanisms. A German researcher stood up and complained about the word "biomimetic" everyone was using. Apparently to German ears, to say a robot fish was "biomimetic" had a very negative connotation, in the sense of superficial mimicry without substance. Germans preferred to say that such a fish was "bionic."

Americans, I think, would be reluctant to say they were working on bionic fish.

Richard Mason said...

And here is a copy of what I referred to, with some hyperbole, as a "little essay."

Michael Swanwick said...

Nice article. I'd argue that the last item is actually Pure Engineering. It's a great hack.