Popular Science shows us the latest from Boston Dynamics, a company that, with your tax dollars, is developing robots to do things like carry soldiers' gear for them. This R&D is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), creator of that which is wicked cool and that which is nearly terrifying. The interesting thing about these bots is that instead of using wheels or tracks, they walk, in a way so similar to carbon-based lifeforms as to be almost creepy. Check it out:
My favorite part -- other than the wistful musical score -- is when they tout the ability to allow for "safe human interaction with possibly dangerous robots." Yeah, that'd be good. This little puppy is called Little Dog; you can see its cousin Big Dog, who does cool stuff like run up hills and right itself without falling down after slipping on ice, here.
Right now, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan have to lug around a huge amount of equipment, sometimes weighing over 100 pounds. But the soldiers of the near future may be followed by a pack bot that can carry all their gear while gracefully stepping over obstacles. As for giving the robot the ability to lay down some suppressive fire, that's something the military is understandably skittish about. It's one thing to have robots controlled by a human who makes the decision to fire (as our drones do), but once you allow the robot to make the decision, you open up a big can of worms. You know, worldwide robot apocalypse when they inevitably turn on their fleshy masters.
Roombas are all well and good (and iRobot, the company that makes the Roomba, also makes robots for the military), but projects like this one make you appreciate the wonder of evolution. You probably haven't given much thought to the intricate engineering and spectacularly dexterous coordination that goes into walking, but when you see a robot that can sort of do it, you realize how amazing it is.
Our future war may not be fought robot army against robot army, but at the rate robotics is progressing, it won't be too long before we get the Jetsons' Rosie doing our housework, which was always the real point. (This robot can fold dish towels it retrieves from a hamper, to which I say, let me see you do a fitted sheet and then we'll talk.)
-- Paul Waldman