Sep 07 2012
That may seem like a “Well, duh!” headline, until I add the extra tidbit that the cheetah in question is a robot.
The Cheetah Robot developed by Boston Dynamics recently reached 28.3 mph on a treadmill speed test, beating the world record for human foot speed attained by Usain Bolt at 27.78 mph. The Cheetah is a project backed by US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and is being developed for potential military applications.
The achievement is a significant milestone. Robots have traditionally not been very mobile, unless they are housed in some sort of vehicle. Even then, until recently real mobility required a human operator. Researchers have been making steady progress, however, in developing systems for vehicles that can drive themselves (a project also supported by DARPA).
Walking, on the other hand, has been a skill that has largely eluded robots, whether on 2,3 4 or more legs. We take bipedal mobility for granted, but it is a neurologically very complex feat that requires many of our neural subsystems working well in order to achieve confident and safe bipedalism. Walking is easily compromised by a number of neurological ailments, not just weakness, but also compromise in balance, vision, sensation, vestibular function, joint function, and extrapyramidal function (which regulates the smoothness of movement). Bipedal walking is a delicate moment-to-moment balancing act that we have not, so far, been able to reverse engineer.
We are getting there and people alive today will likely see reasonably mobile bipedal robots, Engineers, however, have focused on the much easier task of robots with four or more legs. The Cheetah, as the name implies, is a quadrupedal headless robot designed after the living cheetah, which is the fastest land animal on Earth, able to achieve speeds of up to 75 mph. The robotic Cheetah is nowhere near that pace at only 28 mph, but it is advancing quickly. (It’s previous record was 18 mph set only 6 months ago.)
This robot is designed for speed. Boston Dynamics has also developed another quadrupedal robot called Big Dog – this is more of a pack mule, not intended for speed but for balance, carrying capacity, and stability. You can see in the linked video the robot handling rough terrain, snow, slipping on ice, and even being kicked over, all with a 340 lbs payload. It can even jump over obstacles. This robot is designed to carry equipment and supplies into dangerous combat situations.
The linked BBC article contains this quote:
Noel Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield, said the robot was “an incredible technical achievement, but it’s unfortunate that it’s going to be used to kill people”.
These robots are being developed for the military, but that does not mean they will be used to directly kill people. Big Dog is designed to carry stuff, not for combat. I am not sure how accurate the concern is that the Cheetah Robot will be used to kill people. According to DARPA:
DARPA said it is developing Cheetah to contribute to emergency response, humanitarian assistance and other defense missions, because it needs a robot that can handle difficult terrain.
Just because the robot can potentially run faster than a human does not mean it will be used to run people down. Of course, I cannot know what plans are hatching inside the Pentagon, but I doubt they are planning to use the Cheetah as an autonomous robotic killing machine (ala Caprica).
Developing these technologies, however, does raise the issue. Once we do have the technology to build autonomous mobile robots that can essentially operate as soldiers – will we? This can easily be justified. Such robots would provide a massive advantage on the battle field, and it is a lot easier for politicians to send robots, rather than citizens, into dangerous combat.
There is a spectrum here as well, not just Cylon Centurians. We are already using drones and robots as extenders of human soldiers. – putting a machine gun on treads, for example, and then remote controlling it into enemy territory, or remotely flying drones rather than piloting aircraft. It seems likely that tomorrow’s high-tech soldiers will be more like video-game operators, remotely killing virtual enemies or destroying virtual targets (that happen to represent real enemies and targets). We are already partly there.
Soldiers in the field are also getting more and more technological assists and upgrade, to keep them more protected and farther and farther from harm. It seems like a no-brainer to send a robot rather than a person across of field of fire to deliver supplies and equipment. It’s a small stretch to add some defensive capability to that robot, or make it into a weapons platform.
Of course what everyone wonders is how far will this go. Will we end up with fully autonomous robotic soldiers, perhaps even with some onboard intelligence. Could such robotic soldiers fall into the wrong hands? Could our enemies hack into their systems and take control of an advanced army? Is this how robots take over the world?
Hopefully this is more science fiction than science, but it seems like a good idea to think of these possibilities every step of the way.
The Cheetah Robot itself does not seem to pose such a risk. It seems better suited to rapid response, rather than seek and destroy. It does, however, represent a milestone in the development of a critical robotic technology, legged movement faster than humans. It still needs to be tested in the field, which Boston Dynamics says will happen next year. For now it is tethered and running on a treadmill. Their success with Big Dog, however, makes me confident that we will soon be seeing a Cheetah Robot running on natural terrain – hopefully not chasing anything.
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