This is a robotics competition to find the crappiest robot ever invented
The field of robotics is one of the most fascinating avenues of scientific engineering in the modern world, and a robotics competition is one of the most challenging contests of mental aptitude. For decades now, our finest programmers have been attempting to create a machine in man’s image. Ever since the genius mathematician Alan Turing devised the Imitation Game as a method of determining artificial intelligence in a computer system, we have devoted billions of dollars towards perfecting and refining our custom-made droids.
Aside from a few exceptions, robots today are fairly crude things, mostly used in assembly lines, and we’re still a long way from creating robots that can mimic people, such as those depicted in Blade Runner or The Terminator. Of course, that hasn't stopped people from becoming more than a little paranoid over them. But any inventor worth his circuitry will tell you that design is mostly trial and error, and robotics is no exception. With this in mind, over in the Far East, a Japanese tournament has endeavoured to embrace failure and crappy design, with a robotics competition aimed at finding the world’s worst robot.
It might seem a bit weird to celebrate failure, but we hand out sarcastic trophies for other projects. Think about the Golden Raspberry Awards for example, which commemorate the most disastrous movies released in cinemas that year. Japan’s Hebocon is no different in that regard, and people attending these huge shows seem to find the dismal performance of their crude robots somehow cute and endearing. A drawing robot that ends up snapping a crayon in two and tearing a hole in the canvas is praised for its uselessness. A Roomba with a beer can taped to it is seen as an ideal of awfulness.
The name “Hebocon” comes from the Japanese word “Heboi” - which translated means “poorly-working or non-functioning". Heboi robots “do not even move properly, and may break at the slightest impact ... Such robots are worthless from an engineering standpoint, but they possess an appeal that impressive robots just do not have.”
The great thing about Hebocon is how egalitarian it is. You don’t need any qualifications, or knowledge of computing or engineering, or any kind of formal degree to contribute. No experience in robotics is required. In fact, the less you know the better you’ll do. The more pathetic your attempt to build a robot is, the better your chances are at winning the contest. A childish design that topples over, bursts into flame, or just fails to do anything, is celebrated as a champion. This is one race where any kind of expertise will only hold you back.
Daiju Ishikawa founded Hebocon back in 2013 with the intention of spreading his love for all things kitsch and amateurish in technology. Ishikawa was the moderator of a website called Daily Portal Z, on which he would routinely write and post articles pertaining to his own eccentric interests, such as “Cheese across Hamburg” or “The lifestyle of an Amazon boxes collector.”
Ishikawa claims that: “I realized that the way people fail in engineering is very interesting and entertaining. Hebocon started when I wanted to see more failures and bad works.” Thus, Hebocon was originally a way of consoling those designers at the Tokyo Maker Faire whose robots had not been successful.
Ishikawa’s installation was so popular that the first ever Hebocon was held one year later - a contest where every participant was resigned to calamity and dysfunction. “We thought it would be a few friends,” he stated. “But 80 people wanted to take part, so we had to install a first come first serve rule and find a different venue.”
Since then, more than 60 Hebocon-like competitions have been held in over 25 countries, including contests in the US, Taiwan, England, Portugal, Spain and Italy. A subreddit was launched in 2014, as a forum where fans of robotics fails can post pictures and videos of their malfunctioning creations.
What advice is there out there for people interested in participating in this spectacle of incompetence? Ishikawa himself recommends that potential entrants should endeavour to ignore the technical parts of their brain when designing their robot, and approach the task more like a very weird form of modern art.
"Focus on how you can avoid using anything technical, and only try out ridiculous ideas you've never seen or heard of in your life. If things aren't looking good, then you have the right to participate in Hebocon" he encourages. "Think about the function (movement, attack method, appearance, etc.) that you want to create. Do not think about difficulty or feasibility. Just follow your intuition to buy simple materials or look for things that you have around the house."
Here are just a few examples of the ridiculous robots that have made an appearance at Hebocon: a box of tissues which has six dildos for legs, a pole-dancing Barbie doll who spins around a pencil and a vegetable robot made out of broccoli, carrots, and a go-kart. The robots are either made to complete basic tasks, or are made to fight in a Robot Wars-style duel with each other, in which the winners are often unexpected.
Some of the anecdotal stories of Hebocon participants have bordered on the Pythonesque. In one memorable instance, a female participant missed her stop on the train. Feeling defeated, she decided to go to a bar instead of the contest, and tweeted a picture of her robot sitting next to her beer to the organisers. They promptly declared it to be the worst robot of all since it hadn’t even managed to succeed in turning up to be judged, and was now lazily drinking alcohol in a pub.
In a way, the antics of the inventors at Hebocon reminds me of the Dadaist movement, which emerged in Europe among artists in the early 20th century. Back then, artists rejected the logic, reason, and social convention, actively perused nonsense and surrealism in their works and would often lampoon typical works by intentionally making them gauche, ugly, abstract or absurd.
Ishikawa himself seems to agree with this sentiment, stating “a good look at a participating robot reveals the human weakness of its creator … This is another factor that makes Hebocon interesting. Observing the robots in Hebocon is like reading confessional literature. That’s why I always say ‘Hebocon is not engineering; it is literature.’”
There’s something quite inspiring about this attitude towards design which I think is more than just random humor. Japanese culture is often quite anally obsessed with competition, and any half-assed jobs are looked down upon in Asian society. I think that it’s unhealthy to constantly strive for success in everything, and exhausting to give every activity or hobby we engage in 110 per cent.
I think Hebocon will be a good thing for inventors out there, encouraging them not to be discouraged if things go wrong and to take a trial-and-error approach to robotics. Perhaps that’s why we find the flailing incompetence and clumsy, awkward movements of the robots so endearing. It makes them relatable. It just goes to show: if you can’t be the best then you sure as hell can try to be the worst.