Technology and purpose

The Gigantic Robot cover

‘The Gigantic Robot’, by Tom Gauld.

This wry tale of unrealised potential is arresting for its moral ambiguity. During a war, a gigantic robot is secretly created and unveiled. It’s a powerful, looming figure in a barren environment and it promises to be a brutal engine of destruction. Almost immediately, it malfunctions. Scientists try to diagnose and fix the problem – but before they can make any progress, the war ends and the project is abandoned. By the time another war begins, the once-impressive robot is already irrelevant and beginning to disintegrate. It stands awkwardly as a monument to failure and obsolescence, never having been used in the way it was intended. With the passage of time, the robot falls into further disrepair and is eventually reduced to rubble, becoming part of the landscape.

The Gigantic Robot scaffolding

Discussion – Goals and purposes

  • Do human beings need big goals?
  • What makes a goal worth striving for?
  • How can we know whether our efforts are pointless?
  • How does something come to have a purpose?
  • Is there a difference between goals and purposes?

Tom Gauld structure dismantled

The gigantic robot is revealed

Discussion – Impermanence and meaning

  • Is there anything permanent in the world?
  • Does the impermanence of a thing make it less meaningful or important?
  • Is a longer life more meaningful than a shorter life?

The Gigantic Robot disintegrating

Discussion – Nature and technology

  • Is the passage of time a feature of nature?
  • Is nature more destructive than technology?
  • What exactly do we mean by ‘nature’ and ‘technology’? Are there some things that are both natural and technological?

The Gigantic Robot (broken)

Discussion – The future

  • Will there always be war?
  • Does history repeat itself? If so, would it be possible to escape this cycle?
  • What do you think the world will be like in the distant future?

Tom Gauld robots

Activity – Invent a robot

Imagine that you’re a master of robotics. You decide to invent and build a new robot.

  • What is your robot’s purpose?
  • What are your robot’s goals?
  • What would your robot be able to sense?
  • How would your robot move about?
  • What commands would you program into your robot?
  • If your robot didn’t function the way you had intended, what would you do about it?

Young children may also enjoy the activity How to Train Your Robot by Nikos Michalakis (aka ‘Dr Techniko’). The accompanying teacher’s notes are helpful in introducing kids to basic robotic functions with the help of fictional and real robot examples. They also explain how children can train their own ‘robots’ (actually humans) using commands – including some invented by the children themselves – to write a simple program.

Tom Gauld Machine 1

Philosophical Allsorts

“Nothing endures but change.” Heraclitus (540 – 480 BCE)

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Plato (429 – 347 BCE)

“The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.” Karl Marx (1818 – 1883)

“A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.” Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

“Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.” Aldous Huxley (1894 – 1963)

“To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top.” Robert Pirsig (1928 – )

“This is the whole point of technology. It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other.” Don DeLillo (1936 – )

“Biological evolution is too slow for the human species. Over the next few decades, it’s going to be left in the dust.” Ray Kurzweil (1948 – )

Tom Gauld Machine 2

All illustrations by Tom Gauld.

The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children in Australia.




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