Theo Jansen’s remarkable inventions are part-vehicle part-artificial life.
“I came up with the idea to build skeletons on the beach to save dunes – to save us from the rise of the sea level,” he says. But Theo’s original idea for automated sand-shovelling vehicles soon morphed into something far more interesting – a new species of artificial life-form powered by nothing more than the wind. He christened them Strandbeests (dutch for Beach Beasts).
“A big advantage of the Strandbeest is that they don’t have to eat – they wait for the wind and use the wind as their energy source.”
To bring his machines to life, Jansen first needed to source a material that was cheap, strong – and most importantly – light. He settled upon a simple yellow tube that is seen everywhere in Holland.
“This kind of tube are used for electricity lines so they are everywhere. All the kids in Holland know these tubes – they can blow paper darts into windows”
To an engineer they are just plastic tubes. To Theo, they’re his invention’s basic building blocks.These are the cells of the Strandbeest– fit them together you can make a structure….
Finding the right building blocks for this new life was one thing – but giving them their freedom was an even greater challenge. Theo’s love of theatre, coupled with his passion for artificial intelligence convinced him he could make his vehicles walk by themselves – but how?
“When I started this I didn’t know how to move the thing – rolling, gliding – then I came up with the idea of legs – to walk on the beach – that’s what you want.”
Theo got to work. If the vehicle was to move, it would require long legs which could stride, a body that remained stable and feet that wouldn’t sink in the sand.
But despite the brilliance of Dr Frankenstein’s – sorry Theo’s – design – it had one potential major flaw: if the wind disappeared, the beast would indeed be stranded…
So Theo got to work on his odd art project and designed them a wind stomach .
“The wings on top they pump air into lemonade bottles to a high pressure –and they can use this to survive the wind silences on the beach.”
But what if Theo’s self-animating creatures wander towards danger – the sea, for example? Well clever old Theo has thought of that too. He gave the creatures water sensitive antenna. “The water feeler sucks in air all the time – as soon as it arrives in the sea and sucks in the water and feels the resistance of the water and a switch goes over and the animal knows it is in the sea and they should run out the sea again.”
Theo’s dream of creating a new form of Artificial Intelligence would appear to close to becoming reality – who needs cloning when you have plastic tubes and a shed on the beach?
Luckily, none of it’s gone to his head…
“When I’m alone on that beach struggling with that material to create new life – I think I understand the reality more of the reality of evolution – I try to be a new God – a new nature – I’m the new God.”