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"Science fiction and science have always danced around each other. Science fiction is the subconscious of science."
- Greg Bear

Christmas Bush Motile Robot  
  Repair robot with extra-sensitive hands.  

These robots are the physical extension of the artificial intelligence system of their spaceship - James. When the robot has it's limbs extended and laser lights on, it looks like a Christmas tree.

The hands and eyes of the near-human computers that ran the various vehicles on the expedition were embodied in a repair and maintenance motile used by the computer, popularly called the "Christmas Bush" because of the twinkling laser lights on the bushy multibranched structure. The bushlike shape for the robot has a parallel in the development of life forms on Earth. The first form of life on Earth was a worm. The stick-like shape was poorly adapted for manipulation or even locomotion. Then these stick-like animals then grew smaller sticks, called legs, and the animals could walk, although they were still poor at manipulation. Then the smaller sticks grew yet smaller sticks, and hands with manipulating fingers evolved.

The Christmas Bush is a manifold extension of this idea. The motile has a six-"armed" main body that repeatedly hexfurcates into copies one-third the size of itself, finally ending up with millions of near-microscopic cilia. Each subsegment has a small amount of intelligence, but is mostly motor and communication system. The segments communicate with each other and transmit power down through the structure by means of light-emitting and light-collecting semiconductor diodes. It is the colored lasers sparkling from the various branches of the Christmas Bush that give the motile the appearance of a Christmas tree. The main computer in the spacecraft is the primary controller of the motile, communicating with the various portions of the Christmas Bush through color-coded laser beams. It takes a great deal of computational power to operate the many limbs of the Christmas Bush, but the built-in "reflex" intelligence in the various levels of segmentation lessen the load on the main computer.

The "hands" of the Christmas Bush have capabilities that go way beyond that of the human hand. The Christmas Bush can stick a "hand" inside a delicate piece of equipment, and using its lasers as a light source and its detectors as eyes, rearrange the parts inside for a near instantaneous repair. The Christmas Bush also has the ability to detach portions of itself to make smaller motiles. These can walk up the walls and along the ceilings with the tiny cilia holding onto microscopic cracks in the surface. The smaller twigs on the Christmas Bush are capable of very rapid motion. In free fall, these rapidly beating twigs allow the motile to propel itself through the air. The speed of motion of the smaller cilia is rapid enough that the motiles can generate sound and thus can talk directly with the humans.

Each astronaut in the crew has a small subtree or "imp" that stays with him or her to act as the communication link to the main computer.

From Rocheworld, by Robert Forward.
Published by Not known in 1985
Additional resources -

According to the introduction to the novel, the idea of a Christmas bush robot was "jointly conceived" by Forward and Austrian roboticist Has Moravec.

Thanks to Ben Lipkowitz for supplying the quote.

Compare these ideas to the microrobot from The Scarab (1936) by Raymond Z. Gallun, the ultra-microrobot from Menace in Miniature (1937) also by Gallun, waldo from Waldo (1942) by Robert Heinlein, the golden shuttles from The Mechanical Mice (1941) by Maurice Hugi, the autofac nanorobots from Autofac (1955) by Philip K. Dick, the nanomachine swarm from The Invincible (1954) by Stanislaw Lem and the robot cells from Robot City (1987) by Michael Kube-McDowell.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Rocheworld
  More Ideas and Technology by Robert Forward
  Tech news articles related to Rocheworld
  Tech news articles related to works by Robert Forward

Christmas Bush Motile Robot-related news articles:
  - Bush Robots - Fingers On Your Fingers On Your Fingers...
  - Flying Micro-Robot Has Pincer
  - Hopfield Neural Net Helper AIs For Astronauts
  - Yale Aerial Manipulator Flying Robotic Hand

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