Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Monthly Archives: January 2014

A Bit of Reality on The Verge

It’s wonderful to see a tech blog question its own quasi-religious assumptions – that humans have already create (it’s a conspiracy) a race of humanoid robots that will (1) revolt against us (2) have sex with us (3) bring us a beer. The actual state of humanoid robots is pretty lame compared to the movies, but you wouldn’t know it from CES last week. But here is The Verge pointing out that “booth bots” like the similarly hyped “booth babes” are part of the larger flapdoodle that characterizes our murky take on the future of robotics.

In the article by Russell Brandom, the notion that we are about to have humanoid robots in our society is skewered for what it is – tech bible (the Revelation part).

CES’s robotics booths have a surprising number of anthropomorphic bots, and most of them seem indifferent to the latest displays and processors. They’re working another angle, something much closer to kitsch. Human robots are fascinating, but their fascinating quality doesn’t have much to with the technology at work behind the scenes. It’s aesthetics, not technology


Robothespian, whose antics are described by the article is doing EXACTLY what Electro was doing at the 1939 World’s Fair.

film-from-1939-Worlds-FairAnother great quote from the article:

In the modest goal of tempting people into your booth, these robots are doing better than a lot of the more impressive tech on the floor. As it turns out, that game is more about the human reaction than anything that happens on a circuit board.

In other words, our desire to believe that Robots That Jump actually exist is fueled by our perception that “technology is getting so much faster every day” and that means there must be real robots running around. But this desire was the same in 1939 as it is in 2014. And nobody can really show what people want to see, so there is a quick retreat into computer-generated animation fantasy.

Computer-generated fantasy robot punches kid

Now, if you really have to make a big metal puppet, how about going beyond this idea? You can find exactly the same scenes in the (surprise) 1939 movie “The Phantom Creeps?

Bela Lugosi in The Phantom Creeps

(go about 3 minutes in to see the robot, who is concerned about household neatness)

The conclusion here is that our desire to have robots is is consistent, but our ability to make them, even today, is big metal puppets. There has been some progress in 80 years – witness the December 2013 DARPA Robotic Challenge – but it is nowhere near our fiction.

And what we want the robots to do (crack jokes, fight, play guessing games) is something a Neanderthal 40,000 years ago would have no problem understanding.

Driverless cars don’t jump, but drones might…

2013 was the year that robotics began to heat up (yet again), but not robots that jump. There was the usual show of humanoid puppets with promises of future beer delivery…but progress to functional bipeds remained stuck in first gear. The antics of Asimo and related humanoids seems like it was in 2004. Media hype remains alive, like this example in the New York Times. Apparently, even if the robots aren’t intelligent, they will be made more faux-human to make the more acceptable in non-industiral environments. The article points out that someone kissed a robot, but kids (an more than a few adults) kiss their stuffed toys all the time. People kiss their TV screens. Progress.

The most obvious aspect of this is the humanoid-ization of industrial robots, e.g. Rethink Robotics Baxter. From the videos, Baxter seems like a typical industrial robot with a moderate level of sensory-driven actions. But the form factor has been changed, so the robot seems less of a threat on the shop floor. The design is pretty good, avoiding the “uncanny valley” and making a friendly-looking metal (in a body-builder sort of way).

Another interesting area centered around the DARPA Robotics challenge. The media made a big show of the humanoid Atlas body, but the big deal was having people compete to make a virtual robot work in a simulated environment, and then try to transfer it to a real-w0rld robot. The results are summarized in a video (with a very strange choice for soundtrack) on Youtube.

While it seems unlikely that these systems are truly agile, at least DARPA is trying to compare the virtual to the real. The problem (as always) is limited sensory input. It is worth stressing that living organisms always have very elaborate senses, even if they have hardly any brain. But humanoid robots continue to be brain-heavy and sense-deficient. The humanoids here still seem very tentative due to their lack of sensation. No wonder Atlas can’t jump!

Hype is endless. Motley Fool treats the Atlas, built by Boston Dynamics, now acquired by Google, as a disaster-bot. One look at this robot shows that it would be part of the disaster in a real-world environment. Hopefully, this won’t lead to another Bitcoin-style bubble in robotics.

In contrast, “driverless cars” became big news (yet still also) again, after a long winter following the end of the DARPA Grand Challenge in  2004-2005. The model for the driverless future is clearly a “robot-ized” environment instead of an intelligent agent. While the robot cars demonstrated some sensing of their environment, the thing that will let them actually work is (1) GPS providing precise locations, (2) map files linked to the coordinates, and (3) a network between the cars adjusting their behavior relative to each other. The network aspect is often not appreciated, but necessary. If all cars “talk” to each other, they can negotiate how to drive. It is much harder to mix driverless cars with those driven by humans for this exact reason.  A car that actually processes its environment (meaning it would make decisions more like a person) remains off the radar.

However, this is not a problem for techies – rather than making robots driving natural environments, they call attention to the value of making the roads more machinelike. Instead of jerky starts and stops with an emotional human driver, we can convert driving to an operation with precise, predetermined steps.If roads and street signs are too complex for robots, the solution is now to make the roads and street signs robot-friendly. This will “make driving safer” according to techies.

Sure, this would work. However, what we end up with is no longer driving – it is more like an old “slot car” system where the environment prevents the unintelligent vehicle from deviating from its path. It is very much like the “world of the future” I read about in grade school in my 1960s “Weekly Reader.” In that world (1979) the roads had wires that sent messages to the cars so the operated without crashing. A central controlling computer kept traffic flowing without jams. Despite the Cylon-type expectations of robots, our coming driverless age will be more like a railroad or streetcar system. If you add in the concept of “shared ownership” (an oxymoron if there ever was one) the transformation is complete.  Non-owned cars, by definition are less subject to user control. It makes more sense to make them part of a dance-like systems run by standard computer software. But we won’t be any closer to the Asimov-ian car-bots of his story, Sally. Asimov describes Robots that Jump in his cars, which don’t need all the GPS and network connections in the modern “vision.” Instead, they seem more like critters, voiceless but communicating with honks and doors slamming.

Driverless cars as envisioned today are definitely NOT Robots that Jump. The models currently out have very limited sensors and rely on artificial signals (e.g. GPS) along with precomplied map data. Detection is limited to collision avoidance.  They might be a good place to start, but it won’t happen.

One last point to consider is how Google has it tentacles into both driverless cars and humanoid robots. As mentioned earlier, Google grabbed Boston Dynamics, creator of Atlas and various four-legged robots like the famous Big Dog and Cheetah, along with several other companies including Schaft. Schaft has been working on stronger, capacitator-based robotic actuators, which can provide the torque needed to keep robots upright. Current servos just aren’t strong enough to respond to the forces generated when a robot slips on a banana peel.

It was refreshing to see The Guardian Online look at Google robotics not as the rise of the machines, but the rise of a corporation comparable to the big trusts of the early 20th century. For the near term, we won’t have Robots that Jump. We don’t have to fear robots. Instead, we have to worry about companies making the world safe for their as yet clumsy, dumb robots. The worst case would be a world that is robot-friendly, but highly structured and controlled in human terms.  The problem would be that the world would be less interesting, when make more accessible to dumb robots.

On the other hand, flight drones might be closer to true robots. Unlike driverless cars, their senses more or less match the available environment information when flying. Next post.