The Path to Tetra Vaal

So around 1997, over my company’s broadband connection, I downloaded some video files–which is what we did in those days before YouTube–from the Honda robotics site about a bipedal robot called P1. I can’t seem to find the video I watched back then but here is another promotional video that captures the flavor. The robot is tethered but it’s hoofing around and opening doors as neat as you please:

At the time this was astonishing because bipedal motion was a very hard problem in terms of AI, sensing, navigation and motor control. It had never been done before.

But the Japanese government, by way of universities, MITI and industry R&D departments threw many millions of dollars and thousands computer scientists and engineers at the problem until they cracked it with brilliant creativity in 1993. By 1997, P1 was climbing stairs and just walking around at a pretty good clip. P1 and its descendants eventually eventually walked, tether free, into history as Honda’s ASIMO robot line.

Since that time simply everyone has got into the bipedal robot business and the US military has taken a very active interest, which takes us to the DARPA Robotics Challenge of 2015 and its oft cited failures:

What’s not often shown are the longer videos of all the robot recoveries and successes in the challenge though:

Bipedal robots are getting better and better at the tasks we set them disturbingly fast. Which brings us to Boston Dynamics (Now owned by Google or Alphabet or whatever it’s calling itself now.) promotional video for its bipedal Atlas robot which was generating a lot of buzz in the news yesterday:

What’s going on here in the video is both very impressive to me:

  • Walking on snowy ice covered forest floor without falling down is not at all easy even for humans!
  • The latest Atlas only masses at 81 kilos. P1 massed at 175 kilograms and was always tethered for both power (The batteries weren’t small enough.) and stability.
  • I don’t know what the battery life on this version of the robot is but I’m guessing that it’s about 20 to 30 minutes on the rough terrain.
  • Being fully electromechanical Atlas is far, far more quiet than Boston Dynamic’s famous Big Dog.

I wonder how the next DARPA challenge is going to go! And I’m reminded of the Blomkamp short that made him famous from way back in 2003. I suppose we could stress over all the military implications here but, honestly, I’m more worried about the implications of bipedal robots on employment:

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