bucket of parts that can be poured down a drain, and ultimately unblock it


New Member
Mandarin Chinese
So I'm reading this book about robotics, and here's a paragraph with an ending difficult to interpret...

... at Harvard University worked to build robots that pick up and place blocks. The robots could then climb up the stacks and lay more blocks. After placing dozens of blocks, a small castle was built. The challenge in this case was building the structure without the robots’ bumping into one another. The structure had to be built in such a way that the robots could always climb it to build the next layer. Building in three dimensions has its own idiosyncrasies that researchers are overcoming, bringing us closer to the proverbial bucket of parts that can be poured down a drain, and ultimately unblock it from the other side.
Not sure what the bolded part means. Any ideas please?
  • Edinburgher

    Senior Member
    German/English bilingual
    Well, I'm not sure how appropriate "proverbial" is here, because I've never come across a mention of that kind of bucket.
    But the idea isa bit of futuristic thinking in which we imagine that you could unblock a blocked drain by pouring a number of very small robots into your blocked drain, and that they will co-operate with each other and dig their way through the blockage and break it down from the far end. Then when they've finished, they will presumably climb back up the now unblocked drain and wait for you to thank them.

    Uncle Jack

    Senior Member
    British English
    I think the writer might be imagining his proverb. I certainly cannot find any reference to any proverb or common expression featuring a bucket of parts.

    Even his example is flawed. Edinburgher's suggestion makes sense, that miniature robots could unblock a drain from within, but that is not what the writer says. He says "from the far side", which suggests that the parts (which I see no reason to interpret as miniature robots - their being components of a self-assembling robot would make more sense to me, given the word "parts") somehow work their way past or through the blockage before doing the unblocking.


    New Member
    Mandarin Chinese
    I checked the dictionary and there is indeed an expression "pour something down the drain" which means "to waste something" - pour something down the drain (phrase) definition and synonyms | Macmillan Dictionary

    I think this is what the author means by "proverbial", although where he puts the word "proverbial" is strange.

    After some thinking and reading your comments, I think maybe the author means that there will be a time when we can just throw a bucket of robot parts and then somehow they will self assemble themselves into tiny robots, and then help unblock the drain?? That still doesn't explain the proverb or the metaphor though... Also, it doesn't explain why the author mentioned robots that can build 3D structures right before that clause. Robots that can build 3D structures don't equal to self-assembling robots!


    Senior Member
    English - U.S.
    It's possible that in robotics people talk about buckets of parts in that way. It might be proverbial to a very small, specific audience.

    In physics class we were always talking about a man in an elevator travelling at the speed of light. It was proverbial for our context but probably meaningless to the general public.

    As far as the content, it does seem to be about self-assembling machines. I would take it that the completed "machine" it too big to pour down the drain but that the individual parts are small enough to get through. They can then self-assemble at the site of the blockage (maybe it's not a full blockage). It's like building a ship in a bottle, but without the human assembly.
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