Roblog: Boston Dynamics Makes The Stuff of Nightmares

Roblog is a weekly column dedicated to understanding the world of robotics. If science fiction is right and the impending robot apocalypse is real, it can’t hurt to be prepared. Come back every Wednesday for a new blog of robot rants.

Cheetah
Boston Dynamic's latest DARPA funded Robot, Cheetah, is built for speed. | Photo courtesy DARPA.

Boston Dynamics first scared the world with the invention of BigDog, a 4-legged robot meant to haul heavy cargo over rough terrain. A spooky robot that looks something like two hunched over men in tights, BigDog can walk through rocks, ice and rough terrain and can keep its balance while being pushed or shoved. The hope is for BigDog to be able to traverse terrain that wheeled vehicles cannot, allowing it to bring supplies to hard-to-reach locations.

Since no dog is complete without its human, Boston Dynamics also brought us Petman, an anthropomorphic robot made especially creepy by its human-like heel-to-toe walking pattern. Petman‘s purpose is to simulate the movements of a solider to aid in the process of developing sturdy, chemical resistant clothing. One can imagine it being used for more sinister needs, however, since it does have the ability to walk, crouch, balance and even do push-ups.

Somehow, though, two terrifying robots were not enough for Boston Dynamics. Their newest robot, Cheetah, is possibly their scariest robot yet, thanks to its ability to run. Modeled after naturally quick animals in nature, the robot “increases its stride and running speed by flexing and un-flexing its back on each step,” similar to how an actual cheetah runs. Before Cheetah, the fastest a robot had ever run was a mere  13.1 mph, a record set at MIT in 1989. Cheetah blew that record away with a speed of 18 mph in testing, much faster than the average human’s sustained running speed. Boston Dynamics isn’t done with it yet, though; they hope to have the robot capable of speeds over over 20 mph and ready for outdoor testing by the end of the year.

Much like BigDog, Cheetah’s development was funded by the Defense Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Cheetah is part of  their Maximum Mobility and Manipulation (M3) program which hopes to improve robot capabilities so they can better “amplify human effectiveness in Defense operations.” Robots certainly aren’t newcomers to the battlefield and are already very useful in finding and disarming various explosives in the field.

The more advanced these robots get, however, the more questions they raise about how ethical they are. While robots can help humans in the field and save lives while they are at it, their apparent ability to strive for a goal makes their morality questionable. Some believe that something that is not alive but has the ability to carry out a potentially dangerous mission violates the way the world should work. Unconscious robots can’t really be blamed for their actions, so who is to be held responsible if they malfunction or misbehave? There are serious moral questions to be dealt with before robots like Cheetah can be used in war.

One thing is certain, however. Boston Dynamics is a leader in the robotics world that makes some terrifying robots. Although worthy of nightmares, these robots consistently have the power to do incredible things. If their abilities are embraced to the fullest, robots like BigDog or Cheetah could be used for more than Defense missions and could help get medical supplies to people in remote locations or distribute food and water following natural disasters. One can only hope that these truly helpful abilities are not overshadowed by the potentially confusing moral questions regarding these robots and their use in war.

Ashley Hansberry

Ashley Hansberry

Ashley Hansberry (CAS '14) is the Senior Editor at The Quad. She is a senior studying Computer Science and Linguistics who likes writing about robots, technology, and education. When she's not living in the computer science lab, you can find her wearing animal earrings or admiring puppies she sees on the street.

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