Sep 07 2012

Cheetah Faster than Humans

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.

18 responses so far

18 thoughts on “Cheetah Faster than Humans”

  1. John Pieret says:

    eating the world record for human foot speed”

    Does Dr. Freud have to check to see if his slip is showing?

  2. John Pieret says:

    They reverse the articulation of the cheetah’s “elbow” and “knee” joints. Is there any explanation for this?

  3. John Pieret says:

    Opps, only the “elbow” joint articulation is changed.

  4. Kawarthajon says:

    I was not too impressed with this machine. First of all, it was very stumbly at the higher speeds and eventually had to be lifted right off the treadmill. Not impressive to me.

    Second of all, it was running on a completely flat treadmill, not even close to real world conditions. I doubt it would even get close to 28mph on a real road, not to mention complicated terrain like a desert/forest/swampy trail.

    Third, it was hooked up to all kinds of supports/wires. I’m not sure it would fare very well without them.

    Fourth would be the issue of fuel. I don’t think that the “cheetah” would be able to run very far without running out of fuel. We take for granted how efficient our bodies are at using fuel (i.e. food) and turning it into work (i.e. going for a stroll). A great example is a comparison of how far a person can travel on a bike (approx 3000km) on the food/energy equivalent of gasoline that would drive a car only about 30km, although this doesn’t take into account the car’s much heavier body and more friction from more wheels, but it is still a big difference. It is also important to remember how incredibly efficient it is for machines to travel on wheels, as opposed to animal-like appendages.

    I’m sure that this machine is a major advancement in mimicking animal movements, but it is still useless in real world situations and just proves how much we take for granted our ability to get around.

  5. Kawarthajon – I agree with all your caveats. But as I said, the same group’s success with Big Dog is impressive and, given that, there is reasonable expectation to be optimistic. Check out the Big Dog video – really impressive. They just have to apply the same tech to the new configuration.

  6. Bronze Dog says:

    Awesome to see a milestone for legged robots.

    And yeah, the concerns are very misdirected. We’ve already got remote controlled bomber drones and the like. Being fleetfooted isn’t necessarily offensive, and even if it is offensive, how’s it fundamentally different from the machineguns on treads, aside from being a possible improvement on mobility?

    On one level, I’m tempted to naively think fighting wars with robots would save lives by cutting down the number of humans involved, but we’d more likely get A Taste of Armageddon. We’re kind of already there, even with human soldiers. If you could mass produce robot soldiers, it lowers the human cost of going to war, and perversely provides more incentive to use military force to achieve political aims. Add in enough jingoism, and people will be less concerned about the human cost to the enemy.

  7. Kawarthajon,

    Don’t worry, I’m sure it’s just a relatively short matter of time before the robot is has the speed, nimbleness, and stamina to pursue and catch Sarah Conner.

    Bronze Dog,

    Many advancements in the technology of warfare have carried similar claims. Gatling guns/machine guns, tanks, airplanes, nuclear weapons, etc: all these were at one time thought to mean the end of humans dying in warfare; it hasn’t happened yet.

    Also, as long as the technology is asymmetrically possessed (only one side has it), we’re likely to see a greater willingness for the technological power to get into conflicts and launch strikes that pose little or no risk of life for those controlling the drones/robots.

  8. SARA says:

    If both sides use only robots/drones for war, the only way to make war a winning proposition is to take out civilians and civilian buildings.

    And I think you are being a bit rosy in your outlook Steven. I can think of marvelous advantages to having a working cheetah, with armor and weapons. Send a fast and highly maneuverable robot into an enemy camp, building etc. Those kinds of situations cause high casualties for soldiers. It would make far more sense to send in the cheetah.

  9. SARA,

    The next step is to cover the robot warrior cheetahs in synthetically grown animal flesh & hair to blend in with local wild life (where cheetahs are indigenous) & not look like a enemy robot. We can call them Cheeterminators.

  10. skeplanker says:

    Cell phones were developed to make phone calls. Rogaine was developed for high blood pressure. Hitachi’s Magic Wand was, well, you get the point.

    Consider the apparent tactical value of a meat-free four-legged suicide bomber that:

    – can traverse terrain only accessible by foot (e.g., cave)
    – can deliver a precision payload
    – can be remotely controlled from the comfort of your own home
    – is indifferent to bullets, does not bleed, has no fear, can not vote
    – presumably appeals to PETA

    I will go out on a limb and say that the list of intended uses would probably be expanded in the future.

  11. elmer mccurdy says:

    I’d looked up walking (bipedal) robots on youtube a couple months ago, and the newest looked pretty impressive to me.

  12. daemonowner says:

    Two things.

    First, think of what the future will hold. Besides the prospect of robots killing humans, probably within a decade this sort of technology with have advanced enough that future humans (maybe even ourselves) will be reflecting on our arrogance at calling this a ‘cheetah’. The rate at which this tech has advanced is epic, and I don’t see that slowing any time soon. Maybe there will even be serious competition between nations, especially when more nations get in on this and prospects for weaponising it are realised.

    Second, kawarthajon. Bear in mind that Usain Bolt didn’t exactly make the record on a mountain trail. We improve the conditions as much as possible, and they train and prepare as best as they can, to set the record on a nice flat track.

    I think we’ll aim for something like Ravage in Revenge Of The Fallen, if we ever get close. Something like Big Dog could be developed into something more humanitarian, because it could be used for transport and the speed is pretty much irrelevant. We don’t need a cheetah to transport in a peaceful area, and we don’t need the speed advantage (we could just use a car or truck etc).

  13. elmer mccurdy says:

    Maybe everybody will have the bomb by that point, and we can all just relax.

  14. Caermon says:

    I love to see these advances in robotics! I think the Cheetah and the Big Dog are terrific leaps in the field. However, any advantage these give us on the battlefield is likely to be counteracted by a contrasting advantage on the other side. Iran is already copying our drones. I’m sure the Russians and the Chinese are making advances as well.

    In the end, it will still boil down to one 18 year old kid with a rifle, holding that hill.

  15. BillyJoe7 says:

    “Bear in mind that Usain Bolt didn’t exactly make the record on a mountain trail.”

    Yes, boring, running on a track. I prefer mountain trails. However, for the past six weeks, I have been cycling instead, courtesy of tendonitis that won’t let me run but is unaffected by cycling. Cycling is completely boring. Until you get to the downhill bits! Then it frightens the shit out of you. Kinda like giving anaesthetics I imagine. Boring till something goes wrong. Then you’d probably be feeling like Usain Bolt.

  16. eiskrystal says:

    I’d hate to see the size and cost of the engineering team and equipment repair center for these new levels of sophistication in robotics… or are they going to build a robot for that too?

    Let’s hope it can also repair itself then…

  17. Ufo says:

    Petman by Boston Dynamics walks very well in similar conditions as Cheetah, check the video:

    Would be nice to see this guy walking Big Dog on a leash 🙂

  18. ConspicuousCarl says:

    John Pieret on 07 Sep 2012 at 9:31 am

    They reverse the articulation of the cheetah’s “elbow” and “knee” joints. Is there any explanation for this?

    Maybe they want to avoid a crowded leg arrangement like this:

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