It's Friday, which of course means we have to talk robots. Yesterday, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA) unveiled Atlas, a humanoid robot it's using as part of its robotics challenge, in which teams of engineers will compete to write software that best employs Atlas' human-eradicating capabilities. Kidding, of course—they'll actually be trying to perform a series of tasks that might be needed in a disaster scenario.
Frankly, I've always been skeptical about the potential of humanoid robots. Sure, it helps us to relate to them if they look like us, but the human body has a lot of limitations. For instance, hands are great, but should a robot have only two? Why not four or six, or eleven? The more hands, the more things you can do with them. And legs are extremely useful, especially for navigating uneven environments where wheels won't work well, like the rubble of a building that has fallen over, or the stairs in your house. But are two legs better than three or four?
When you see the specialized robots we've put to work, the design of their bodies is dictated by the tasks they have to perform (it would be crazy to make a Roomba shaped like a human). As the engineers improve on what they've done so far—and we get more processing power and batteries with more power in smaller packages—we'll no doubt want both specialized robots and those that can perform lots of different tasks. It'll be interesting to see if we end up converging on a robot design that mimics the advantages of the human body, but builds on it in ways we haven't thought of yet.
Here's the video of Atlas, who so far seems to do a pretty good job staying upright when knocked with a heavy ball and walking around 2 x 4s. Not a bad start.