Having just successfully recruited a PhD student for a project entitled “Building a robot maggot nose”, I was particularly intrigued when I learned of the work of Boston Dynamics, who are developing some astonishing (and scary) robots, in conjunction with the US military. The video below shows Big Dog, described by Boston Dynamics as follows:

“a rough-terrain robot that walks, runs, climbs and carries heavy loads…. BigDog has four legs that are articulated like an animal’s, with compliant elements to absorb shock and recycle energy from one step to the next. BigDog is the size of a large dog or small mule; about 3 feet long, 2.5 feet tall and weighs 240 lbs…. In separate tests BigDog runs at 4 mph, climbs slopes up to 35 degrees, walks across rubble, climbs a muddy hiking trail, walks in snow and water, and carries a 340 lb load. BigDog set a world’s record for legged vehicles by traveling 12.8 miles without stopping or refueling.”

The technology involved is pretty amazing, as is the ability of the robot to mimic quadruped behaviour, and thereby test models of how they move. The parts of the movie where the robot regains its balance when slipping or after being pushed are particularly impressive, and raise the question of whether it’s based on an incredibly sophisticated description of behaviour, or whether the programme that runs Big Dog has learned how to cope with slipping over etc.

If the thing was weaponised it would be doubly scary, which raises the question of the relation between science, technology and warfare. Developments in science, technology (and medicine) are often driven by warfare. Just think of the development of computing, radar, aeronautics, nuclear science and antibiotic treatment during World War 2. Maybe developing robotic dogs to work in the hills of Afghanistan is leading to a new breakthrough in robotics.


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