Your Guide to the Most Post-Apocalyptic-Night-Terror-Inducing Death Machines!
Ladies and Gentlemen, this is the sound of the future.
This is the sound that will haunt your nightmares:
Just imagine hearing that sound, knowing what was coming, hearing it get closer and closer—and yet being utterly helpless to stop it. The BigDog climbs in the woods, keeps its balance when kicked and when slipping on ice, travels through snow and mud, jogs up to 5 mph, and can climb some rubble. This rubble is similar to the kind that must be traversed in the DARPA Robotics Challenge. Through all obstacles, it marches onward, unperturbed. To make matters worse, some of this video was shot almost 7 years ago now—who knows how much it's "improved" since then!1
If you thought that was bad, just wait... it gets worse.
Why??! Why would it need to hurl cinder blocks?! How is that helping us?!
But hang on... It gets so much worse.
What the Cat Dragged In Is You
Yes, folks, in case you were hoping by some stroke of luck to escape the BigDog, Boston Dynamics has news for you: there is no escape. The Cheetah (originally WildCat) was designed with the bounding gait of a lethal predator cat (and undoubtedly the same taste for raw flesh). Doesn't look that fast, you say? Look again:
You read that right: the Cheetah runs faster than the fastest human who ever lived. Even worse, it apparently does so on fucking spikes, for some reason (probably so it will be easier to take you down when it pounces on you and digs its T-1000 death spears into your back while you're fruitlessly running away). Better hope to outsmart it, then.
Lie Down With Dogs, Get Up With Fleas
If, however, if by some miracle you manage to outwit the Cheetah and escape to higher ground... yep, you guessed it: Boston Dynamics has a plan for you, too.
A Man is a Great Pet
At this point you should be wondering, "What the fuck, seriously, Boston Dynamics?! Whose side are you on, anyway?!" Well, just in case you weren't entirely sure what this company is about, they've decided to make themselves crystal clear:2
Yes, that's a robot soldier. Yes, he is marching to the inevitable drumbeat of the complete subjugation of the human race. No, he doesn't need that suit, he just looks scarier that way.
Man, Boston Dynamics is just a gold mine. I could go on forever with them. But we can't let them steal the show completely. There's plenty more source material for your next nightmare. Try this one, for example:
It Will Learn to Open Doors
Forget the fucking Cheetah. The MSC Lab at Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) has been hard at work building mechanical velociraptors. Thanks, guys. I always felt that what Jurassic Park was really lacking was an impervious copper-and-steel version of its already unstoppable predators. You have made great contributions to science.
So, what's the next step for this project? Well, obviously:
Maybe they and Steven Spielberg could get together and reanimate the old animatronics from Jurassic Park, finally bringing to life the nightmares of a generation! Hooray.
Throw Me a Bone
Okay, I know I said that I was done with Boston Dynamics, but hear me out. What if I told you they were working on a robot to sneak through the tiniest cracks and vents to infiltrate your home? Well, not only are they doing that, but they apparently would fashion it after a disembodied human spine that uses some kind of disgusting little fins to slither its way into your HVAC system (and probably your bedsheets).
The project is called SquishBot and the goal is to design systems that can transform themselves from hard to soft and from soft to hard, upon command. Another goal is to create systems that change their critical dimensions by large amounts, as much as 10x. So, disembodied human spine that grows 10x its length to ensnare you like a boa constrictor.
Speaking of boa constrictors, who here likes snakes?! Ooh, I do! I do!
Have a gander at the charming Snakebot from CMU's Biorobotics Lab. It's not shy about having a gander at you! It might even snap a few pictures, perhaps while you're sleeping, or making love to your spouse!
But you can already forget that one. It's just a baby. Here's Mama Snake:
Just Like That Anaconda Movie, But Real
Titanoboa is native to my own Vancouver, where it was built by a bunch of hobbyists! How did such a normal group of folks produce such mad science?! I can't wait for the version where they augment it with a life-size boa constrictor belly so it can swallow me whole and slowly digest me with battery acid or something!
Now there aren't many things more intimidating than a massive electromechanical steel replica of a prehistoric beast, but I do have to say that this next snake is really the most disturbing of them all (good god, why are there so many snakes?!).
The folks at the Tokyo Institute of Technology have really outdone themselves with their ACM line of snakes—yes, they've made many snakes over the years, and in fact they've been improving on the design since 1972. And yes, it's available for sale! What are you waiting for?
What—what is it doing—oh my god it can swim—oh god it's in the water! Honey, get the kids!! JOHNNY! JOHNNY GET OUT OF THE WATER!!
Ants in Your Pants
Still more in the creepy-things-crawling-into-unwanted-places file, here's a robot purpose-built for crawling up your pants and into your crotch!
Upon first seeing this, I was baffled. "What could this possibly be useful for," I asked myself, "an on-body sewing kit??" (Which already sounds dubious.) But upon reading the paper, all becomes clear: "Body inspection could be implemented if the robot is equipped with inspection devices." Oh. Wow. Kudos, guys—your imagination is way more sinister than mine.
The Roach Spray Won't Save You
Okay, one more from Boston Dynamics; this is the last one, I mean it this time. Introducing RHex! I'm rather sorry to report that this one isn't the work of Boston Dynamics alone, but many universities3 have had a hand in its fearsome design. I hope his smell isn't better than a basset hound's, because this lively little tyke will gladly follow your scent through rocks, mud, rivers, and mountain streams. And you know, way out there in the woods there's no one to hear you scream...
Okay, okay, that one is a bit cute looking if you look at it the right way. But that's just to encourage you to let your guard down. They won't look so cute when you're up against an entire army of them, scrambling over the hillside like giant metallic cockroaches.
Speaking of army—try this mental image: An army of quadrotors flying in formation, entering through your firstborn child’s bedroom window. They are here to claim what is theirs. You are powerless to stop them.
Flight or Fright
Oh wait, nevermind that, because crazy fucking remote-control helicopter. This is easily the most messed-up shit I've seen all day. I honestly have no idea how the laws of physics even allow the things that happen in this video.
Originally, this blog post was a presentation. When I got to this slide, I told everyone, "Just thank God, fate, and your lucky stars that these things aren't autonomous. These still require human experts." Well wouldn't you know it, I was wrong—dead wrong. (And with these things out there in the wild, it's only a matter of time before I'm just plain dead.) We can thank machine learning giant Andrew Ng and his grad students for this one—the Stanford Autonomous Helicopter Project:
Not Silicon Valley
Switching directions, we now descend into the spooky depths of the Uncanny Valley. Our first stop: Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories, where we'll meet a robot enthusiastically advertised as "The most realistic female android ever!" I'm not sure why they're so excited about this "progress" in realism, but hey, whatever floats your boat, right? *shudder*
Why, just why??
Flesh Rubber—Not the Fun Kind
Okay, by this point in the blog post, you're so scared and creeped out that your blood pressure has doubled and you're about to hyperventilate. Let's provide some comic relief with Jules, the robot who's programmed to pretend to love you:
I'm more worried about the humans in this video than the robot. Are they just hamming it up for the camera, or are they really as dumb as the bucket of bolts they think they're talking to? And, oh, for chrissake, don't bring the kid into this! ("No touching, Zeno.")4
The Blob, Starring Steve McQueen ... and DARPA
Next up is JamBot, a production of iRobot and the Jaeger Lab, a materials research lab at University of Chicago. If this isn’t literally the creepiest thing you’ve ever seen in your whole entire life, then I don’t want to know what kind of nightmares you have on a regular basis.
Yes, it's an iRobot project, but wouldn't you like to know who commissioned this monstrosity, this nightmare blob that oozed out of a crack in the walls of hell? None other than DARPA, of course!5 As the video demonstrates, the objective is to gain entry to your home, where your whole terrified family trembles in waiting.
In actual fact, this is out of the very same program I told you about earlier, the ChemBots program. The very same that funded the Boston Dynamics
slithering severed spine SquishBot program! The only reassurance I can offer you is that all the pages about the ChemBots program have been taken offline—which means either the program was ended, or it has entered a new, very top secret phase of its development. For the good of humanity, let's hope they canned it.
But don't worry, that won't stop others from taking dark inspiration from its grotesque Halloween form—there are many researchers working on soft and weird robots that'll give you the heebie-jeebies!
Soft Robots, Brittle Humans
Take this "multigait soft robot" from George Whitesides' lab at Harvard, or as I like to call it, Freaky Boneless Robot! It was inspired by animals like squid, starfish, worms (a.k.a. the grossest, squishiest animals). In addition to slipping through gaps, the robot can make it across things like felt cloth, gravel, mud, and Jell-O (don't ask). As IEEE Spectrum wrote,
Pretend to act shocked that the development of this robot has been funded by DARPA, and then start exercising your imagination as to what could be done with an indestructible, unstoppable, squishably soft little robot.
I don't think it takes much imagination at all.
Your Printer's Got Bugs
We could continue covering all the skin-crawling mad science that has grown out of the ChemBots program but I feel like we'd be here all day.6 But let's keep things in the realm of the creepy-crawly with the Sprawl Tuned Autonomous Robot of the Biomimetic Millisystems Lab at UC Berkeley.
There it goes! Into the machine shop, to 3D-print more of itself!
Just one last bot. I don't want to drag down the mood or anything, but I feel I would be remiss if I failed to mention the truly scary robots that many people actually have to worry about every day: The Predator Drone.
They have been likened to a mosquito that won't go away, buzzing in your ear. "I can't sleep at night because when the drones are there ... I hear them making that sound, that noise. The drones are all over my brain, I can't sleep." "[People] often complain that they wake up in the middle of the night screaming because they are hallucinating about drones." "The children are crying and they don't go to school. ... They fear that their schools will be targeted by the drones." An anti-terror weapon that itself breeds terror.
As CNN National Security Analyst Peter Bergen puts it, a decade ago the United States "had a virtual monopoly on drones. Not anymore." As of 2013, the U.S., U.K., and Israel had all launched drone strikes. Other countries like Iran and China have developed weaponized drones. Non-weaponized drones are being deployed for many other uses, including surveillance. Some law enforcement agencies are using them (the FBI, the U.S. border patrol, and even some local police forces).7
The above photo is explained in a critique of Western politics:
[This photo] presents the piece that was installed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, close to Pakistan’s northwest border with Afghanistan, by an art collective that includes Pakistanis, Americans and others ... The collective said it produced the work in the hope that U.S. drone operators will see the human face of their victims in a region that has been the target of frequent strikes.
No joke, some robots are just plain scary. But they're still controlled by a human, and hopefully it'll stay that way for good. Just a couple of weeks ago, the U.N. held a Meeting of Experts on LAWS (Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems). They discussed methods for disarmament, how to define "meaningful human control", and other important issues that we'll have to consider very carefully if we don't want The Terminator to come true.
It's a step in the right direction.
Well, that's all I have (pfft, is that all?). Hope you enjoyed, and remember to lock the windows!
- Breaking News! I was right, the technology has progressed quite a lot. Boston Dynamics has just announced (literally while I was writing this post) a new addition to their line of
killerfour-legged robots: Spot! Spot's not quite as scary though so I'm not including him here.
- This post is a joke. I do not actually think Boston Dynamics is trying to take over the world... probably.
- Including the University of Michigan, McGill, CMU, UC Berkeley, Princeton, and Cornell.
- The thing I like most about this video is the baby understands very clearly that Jules is not a person. The patented Frubber™ ("Flesh Rubber"—thanks, Hanson Robotics) may be more lifelike than other robots, but it's not nearly close enough to real human musculature to confuse even a baby.
- You gotta wonder why DARPA's name shows up on this page so darned often.
- How could one program produce so much repugnance? For some more spawn of the ChemBots program, see here and here and here... and, admittedly, here.
- Read more here.