What America really wants this morning is a requiem for a robot -- the heartwarming tale of a simple, hard-working machine that had a skin of tin but a heart of gold. It played its last program Wednesday at a casino in Lake Tahoe, trying to defuse what FBI experts call "the most sophisticated homemade bomb" they have ever seen. That American robot gave its life for gambling.
It's the kind of story that writes itself; ready-made scenes, situations and phrases spring instantly to mind, lifted from dozens of movies about war and crime:
Little Robbie (you have to have a name for human interest) might look something like Artoo Deetoo, and he would keep up a stream of high-ptiched chatter (whistling in the graveyard?) as he sweated away (do robots sweat?) trying to dismantle the complicated mechanism with its explosive attachment. There would be ticking in the background -- maybe Robbie, maybe the bomb. It doesn't matter. Ticking heightens suspense.
After the explosion, while Robbie's cogs and transistors were still clattering down on the desert landscape, there would be a closing line combining elegiac pathos with some instant deep-think, and maybe a tough little twist at the end: "He lived hating crime and he died fighting it. He died to save Americans' right to take a chance, knowing that the odds were against him. The always are in a Nevada casino."
And then, perhaps, an epitaph in the classical style: "Non esto gravis illi, terra; non fuit tibi ." ("Earth do not lie heavily upon him; he did not lie heavily on you.")
Unfortunately, "Little Robbie" is a military secret.There were probably two of him -- one described as "a robot-like mechanical device" (probably a remote-control unit rather than a real robot) which was brought to the scene but apparently not used. The other, which was used and destroyed when the 1,100-lb. bomb went off, seems to have been purely electronic -- and that's about all we are likely to hear about it. The best guess about where the "robots" came from is the Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapon labortories in Livermore, Calif., where they have to be well-equipped to handle dangerous materials at somewhat more than arm's length.
It's easier to get a description of the bomb -- but who wants to write a requiem for a bomb? It was approximately 2x2x4 feet in size, mounted on casters, made of blue steel and wheeled into the casino in a box bearing an IBM label. On top of the big box was a smaller one, identified as a control panel and armed with 24 switches, at least two of which have been identified as monitoring deviced to check whether the bomb was tilted or otherwise moved.
But Robbie? The little robot that couldn't? All the experts will say for publication is that it was "very sophisticated, secret electronic equipment." How can you write a requiem for that?
If Robbie is still a military secret, his little playmates called NEST have now lost that status. NEST -- the Nuclear Emergency Search Team -- is a secret unit set up by the federal government to combat nuclear terrorists. There have been approximately 50 extortion attempts involving nuclear weapons since 1970. All of them, so far, have turned out to be hoaxes. But the danger seemed real enough to set up a speical agency, and NEST is it. NEST came out of the closet for the non-nuclear but enormous bomb in Nevada, possibly choosing this time to go public because its existence and operations detail in a new, best-selling novel, "The Fifth Horseman" by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. The agency's equipment was able to determine what kind of bomb it was and how it worked, but not how to disarm it.
For that, we might have been able to use Artoo Deetoo, but he's under exclusive contract to George Lucas and doesn't freelance on bomb disposal. Most of our metallic heroes in contemporary America are more anonymous.
But some day, somewhere in Nevada, we may hope to see a Monument to the Unknown Robot.