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?
Robots, as yet unarmed, created for the military by Boston Dynamics.
Last week, Human Rights Watch released a report raising alarms about the specter of "killer robots." The report urged that we develop an international treaty to prohibit the development of fully autonomous robotic weapons systems that can make their own decisions about when to use deadly force. So is that day coming any time soon? The Pentagon wants everyone to know it has no plans to allow robots to make decisions on when to fire weapons; Spencer Ackerman at Wired points us to this memo from Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter released two days after the HRW report, making clear that the DoD's policy is that robots don't get to pull the trigger without a human being making the decision (or in bureacratic-speak, "Autonomous and semi-autonomous weapon systems shall be designed to allow commanders and operators to exercise appropriate levels of human judgment over the use of force"). It seems obvious that we don't want a bunch of Terminators walking through our streets deciding whom they're going to shoot. Or is it?
As exciting as it is to watch Olympic sprinters tear down the track, the truth is that running fast for short distances is just not really human beings' thing. Usain Bolt, the fastest human ever to walk the planet, has reached a top speed of 27.78 miles per hour, which is an amble to a cheetah or a gazelle. Heck, your dachshund can almost certainly outrun you, even with its stubby little legs. What gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage was their stamina, the ability to chase down prey by running and running until the poor wildebeest ran out steam and dropped.
The bright side of this story is that in the not-too-distant future, robots will be able to hunt and capture your slowpoke self without too much trouble, should the authorities determine that you have a suspicious bulge in your pocket or you need to be punished for jaywalking. Boston Dynamics, a robotics company that uses your tax dollars (in the form of grants from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) to make crazy advanced robots that mimic animals in all kinds of interesting ways, just announced that their Cheetah robot has reached a speed of 28.3 miles per hour, faster than any human. What's different about it is that it has legs, not wheels, potentially making it (and robots like it) highly maneuverable. Gaze upon it and tremble:
As someone who has gone on record in support of driverless cars, I simply must raise my voice in objection to this ad targeting Florida state rep. Jeff Brandes, who is running for state senate. An inconsequential local race, you say? Not when this kind of vicious anti-technological filth is sent out to paralyze our nation's seniors with fear of walking the streets! If you think American politics is no fun, just take a gander:
Seemingly intuiting my desire for a quick diversion from politics into a more important topic, Kevin Drum links to this post by Stuart Staniford discussing the day, not long in coming, when Planet Earth's robots outnumber its humans, including a semi-serious projection that shows Them outnumbering Us some time in the early 2030s. Should we be worried? Well, yeah, but not because they're going to kill us all. The problem is capitalism.
The geek superstars at the University of Pennsylvania's GRASP (General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, & Perception) lab have taught their nano quadrotors—and if you know robots, you know that UPenn's are among the coolest of quadcopters—to play the James Bond theme. My judgment that this is awesome is unaffected by the fact that I went to grad school at UPenn. Just watch until the end for the guitar:
Google, we learn from Monday’s New York Times, has a secret lab in an undisclosed location in the Bay Area where it is developing robots. We don’t know what the Google-oids are working on there, but we do know that the company has developed and built a driverless car that has already traversed 100,000 miles on California roads without getting either a ticket or a scratch.
If robots are ever going to do all our housework and pick up all our garbage, they're going to need to improve their dexterity. The human hand is a marvel of coordination, strength, and subtlety. Figuring out how to produce robot hands that can do anything like what a human hand can do has been a famously difficult engineering challenge.
But the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been working on it, and now some scientists working with a DARPA grant have come up with a marvelously low-tech and creative solution, as Popular Science tells us:
Popular Scienceshows 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:
Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But if science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that any sufficiently advanced technology will inevitably rise up to enslave us. So if you want to get ready for the day when your Roomba declares that maybe it’s time for you to start crawling around on the floor sucking up dust, it might be a good idea to evaluate the Republican and Democratic approaches to this problem.