Saturday, July 12, 2008

BigDog Creeps Me Out

One of the creepier visions that Star Wars offered of the future, other than Luke falling in love with his sister, was of the Robot Armies: vast battle fields of killing machines, relentlessly unleashed by the Dark Side to do the bidding of pure evil. These ranged from skeletal humanoids (battle droids and super battle droids), to over-sized automated killer insects (destroyer and imperial probe droids) to more unassuming boxy little robots that would just as soon kill you as look at you. They offer all the sociopathic violence of war with none of the emotional ambivalence or potential for compassion.

Military robots are nothing new. The German Goliath was a remote controlled demolition vehicle used in Normandy in 1944. More recent models, which resemble small tanks with cannons and machine guns, have problems with recognition that have led to serious battlefield trust issues, but research is very much underway to develop better working models. The future, more and more, is now.

Boston Dynamics just released a video of BigDog, "the alpha male of the Boston Dynamics family of robots," that is, well, creepy in the extreme. As the technology of killing machines grows more and more sophisticated, the Star Wars future of robot armies is feeling less and less sci-fi
BigDog is the alpha male of the Boston Dynamics family of robots. It is a quadruped robot that walks, runs, and climbs on rough terrain and carries heavy loads. BigDog is powered by a gasoline engine that drives a hydraulic actuation system. BigDog's legs are articulated like an animal’s, and have compliant elements that absorb shock and recycle energy from one step to the next. BigDog is the size of a large dog or small mule, measuring 1 meter long, 0.7 meters tall and 75 kg weight.

BigDog has an on-board computer that controls locomotion, servos the legs and handles a wide variety of sensors. BigDog’s control system manages the dynamics of its behavior to keep it balanced, steer, navigate, and regulate energetics as conditions vary. Sensors for locomotion include joint position, joint force, ground contact, ground load, a laser gyroscope, and a stereo vision system. Other sensors focus on the internal state of BigDog, monitoring the hydraulic pressure, oil temperature, engine temperature, rpm, battery charge and others.

In separate trials, BigDog runs at 4 mph, climbs slopes up to 35 degrees, walks across rubble, and carries a 340 lb load.

BigDog is being developed by Boston Dynamics with the goal of creating robots that have rough-terrain mobility that can take them anywhere on Earth that people and animals can go. The program is funded by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA).

As we more toward a future of urban slum warfare and military conflict over essentials like water and food, technological "advances" such as BigDog fill me with dread. It's not a stretch to imagine something like this, mounted with high-powered automatic weaponry, on the streets of Mexico City or anywhere else "on Earth that people and animals can go," by 2050.


"Uta" Urban said...

Didn't take it seriously until I saw what it did when the guy tried to knock it over. That buzzing fly noise is a creep-out psy-ops war tactic, pure 'n simple.

Dr. Wes Browning said...

Reminds me of a document I saw last year. DARPA put out a list of 23 mathematical challenges with a solicitation for fundable proposals. Some of the challenges creeped me out. #5:"Biological Quantum Field Theory. Quantum and statistical methods have had great success modeling virus evolution. Can such techniques be used to model more complex systems such as bacteria? Can these techniques be used to control pathogen evolution?" I don't think I want my, or any, Defense Department controlling pathogen evolution.

The 23rd and final challenge on the list is: "What are the Fundamental Laws of Biology?" Great question, until you hear the military asking it. I want to say, "Why do you want to know? What are you going to use them for?"

The list is just one of almost 20 solicitations for research or projects put out by DARPA. It's BAA007-68 at

Anonymous said...

I am completely freaked out. I thought this was one of your late night, crazy films with the goal of getting your readers to think outside the box. Whilst it is that, I'm freaked out by the fact that it's real. That buzzing noise is going to ruin some fun I have with other things that go buzz in the night!

Paul.Rice said...

Ahh Tim. Fear the singularity -- don't fear the machine.

Also, I prefer this model BigDog:

Far advanced from its distant BostonDyna cousin.