Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Robots are Coming! The Robots are Coming!

"PETMAN Prototype"

BostonDynamics, YouTube (October 26, 2009)
video, 1:14

"Biped robot that balances dynamically using a human-like walking motion. It is a close relative to BigDog, sharing elements of the mechanical design and control. For more info, see"

I followed that link, to a page on the Boston Dynamics website about their new robot.

"PETMAN - BigDog gets a Big Brother"

"PETMAN is an anthropomorphic robot for testing chemical protection clothing used by the US Army. Unlike previous suit testers, which had to be supported mechanically and had a limited repertoire of motion, PETMAN will balance itself and move freely; walking, crawling and doing a variety of suit-stressing calisthenics during exposure to chemical warfare agents. PETMAN will also simulate human physiology within the protective suit by controlling temperature, humidity and sweating when necessary, all to provide realistic test conditions...."

PETMAN isn't overly burdened with intelligence: The robot doesn't seem to be able to do much besides move like a human being while keeping its balance. Which, on consideration, is rather impressive by itself. It takes us months to learn how to walk on two legs - and years to to do it well.

PETMAN is a relatively new Boston Dynamics project: Odds are pretty good that you've seen this next video, or at least parts of it:

"Boston Dynamics Big Dog (new video March 2008)"

olinerd, YouTube (March 17, 2008)
video, 3:29

"Boston Dynamics just released a new video of the Big Dog on ice and snow, and also demoing its walking gait."

BigDog's balance is impressive. Particularly that bit where the robot recovers - on ice - after being shoved. But being able balance, and move along a set course, still doesn't take all that much intelligence, artificial or otherwise.

What would be really impressive would be if this BigDog robot could, say, follow somebody around.

"BigDog Dogs Human"

BostonDynamics, YouTube (January 26, 2009)
video, 1:17

"BigDog uses LIDAR to track and follow human leader. No operator required."

LIDAR - That's LIght Detection And Ranging..

Well, it seems to me that BigDog took a while, toward the end of the video, figuring out how to go downslope, get around a tree, and follow the human, all at the same time. The dogs I've known would've worked out a solution 'way faster. (More: "BigDog - The Most Advanced Rough-Terrain Robot on Earth," Boston Dynamics)

Meanwhile, from Toyota: a robot violinist:

"Robot Violinist"

diagonaluk, YouTube (November 11, 2008)
video, 1:40

"Toyota have unveiled a new robot that can play the violin. Albeit not particularly well."

I don't know about that "not particularly well" assessment. The performance was technically quite adequate, I thought: what was lacking, in my view, was the sort of expressiveness that marks a really good musician. Quite frankly, I thought the performance was rather mechanical.

I think BigDog and Toyota's robot violinist may illustrate a contrast in how two cultures approach robot design.

Many Japanese robots are sleek, attractive - even appealing - devices which mimic human behavior, and have the potential, at least, to interact with human beings socially.

It's difficult to imagine American robots, like BigDog or PETMAN, in anything other than utilitarian settings: carrying packages, testing equipment, or performing some other practical task.

I mean to say: Can you imagine something like BigDog strolling at a beach?

"BigDog Beach'n"

BostonDynamics, YouTube (April 13, 2009)
video, 1:24

"BigDog's Thailand trek wraps on the beach."

Okay, so you don't have to imagine it: you can watch that video.

I still think that artificial intelligence that can understand natural language - the sort of speech we use in everyday conversation - and make complex decisions is still quite a long way off. But the robots that are available today are quite impressive.

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