DARPA Robotics Challenge   (2015Jun05)


Friday, June 05, 2015                                               3:20 PM

I’m watching large, humanoid robots walk up to doorways, use the door handle to open the door, and walk into the building. When one of the robots got the door open there was a camera shot from inside showing the robot framed in the doorway. I could imagine one at my door—it was a little intimidating.

The DARPA Robotics Challenge is an exciting event—robots are expected to drive cars (and get out of cars—a far greater challenge in some ways) then open doors, walk through rooms, turn a big cast-iron valve attached to a pipe, and other challenges. The teams are from all over—the USA, Germany, Japan, and others—mostly students, learning as they change the world as we know it.

In time, these robots may help disaster victims caught under rubble—or turn off reactors in radioactive rooms that no human could survive. Beyond these heroics, there are infinite possibilities. Robotic construction crews could potentially build an entire Martian base—ready for human occupation.

Robots for the rich could become ‘universal remotes’, capable of changing your channel, putting your feet up, and making you a snack in the kitchen. The most remarkable thing about today’s robots is that they have no wheels, no treads—no expectation of level or paved ground. They walk on four legs, on two legs, on little spikes that make them seem to be tiptoeing, and on cushioned pads that look suspiciously like a pair of sneaks.

The variety of approaches makes the DRC Finals a fascinating show—every teams’ robot has a different look—different armatures—different heads—it’s a circus freak show of mechanical geeks. That speaks to the pioneering aspect of robotics research—it’s still just getting started.

But that giant robot looming in the doorway brought a frightening thought to mind. We already have hackers who can wreak havoc on our on-line lives—what will we do when robo-hackers can send a pack of killer robots to any address? Gun control—phooey. A half-ton of robot can ruin your whole day—and who’s to say they can’t be fitted with their own armaments?

So, yes, be afraid—be very afraid. But the immense power and potential of robots will go forward—becoming faster, lighter, stronger, and more capable. The Internet has some unacknowledged problems with security—it’s so irresistibly useful we try very hard to ignore its vulnerabilities. Robotics will, I predict, go just as far before we start worrying about how much power it puts in the hands of not-nice people.

In a way, we have rid the world of dangerous, man-eating animals only to replace them with artificial creatures that could end up stalking us at the push of a button. But please note: I am filled with wonder by the dawning of the Internet—and I am no less excited about this new dawn of robotics. It’s people I’m afraid of.

Watch the DRC Finals LIVE at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dv9Wm20UrcU&feature=youtu.be

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