Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Monthly Archives: May 2016

88 Years of Show Robots

The typical way most people have experienced a “robot” is at a trade show or other meeting. The showboat robot’s purpose is to perform as a mechanical entertainment, always remote-controlled for more humanlike operation. The end result is a public that thinks humanoid Robots That Jump are far closer to reality than they really are.

My best example in the past has been Elektro, a showbot developed for the 1939 World’s Fair.

Electro at 1939 World's Fair answers questions

While this robot has a few interesting senses (for example, it can detect a lit cigarette and smoke) it is essentially a remote-controlled metal puppet, with a few automatic routines.


But now, the grandaddy of all showbots (if you don’t count the imaginary Boilerplate), Eric, a circa 1928 year robot, is about to be re-created.Eric, a robot built in the UK during the 1920s

The thing that’s cool about Eric is that there is some real mechanical agility in its behavior. Unlike the relatively stiff Elektro, Eric can move is a vaguely human way (though he can’t walk). He was remote via a wireless connection, but could also respond to humans uttering numbers if they were careful speaking. In other words, an early version of speech recognition! From the Cybernetic Zoo:

It appears that Richards deployed two methods of control. One was the use of remote wireless where a hidden person was able to answer the questions asked…

Later, the creators even considered putting in light-sensitive cells to act as ‘eyes’ – which was part of Elektro in the next decade.

Another cool thing about Eric is that he has “R.U.R.” on his chest – short for Rossum’s Universal Robots. This in turn comes from the 1921 stage play by Czech writer Karel Čapek which has the best early example of the notion that (1) We will create robots, (2) They will become superior to us, and (3) They will overthrow us and establish a new robot Eden. Isaac Asimov clearly borrowed this concept for his positronic robots, with a company called US Robots and Mechanical Men featuring prominently in his I, Robot series.

Now, in reality, R.U.R. robots were actually “constructed” humanoids with some machine parts mixed with biology. A cell culture vat or 3D printer (like the classic 5th Element scene) was used to create them. So, they weren’t cold steel, at least in their later versions. In the play, they they look more like genetic clones, ultimately develop advanced human emotions, and pass the final test for robo-worthyness to succeed humanity.

But everyone at the time seemed to understand devices like Eric as an early version or an R.U.R. androids. The Ridley Scott movie Bladerunner (taken in turn from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) features these kind of “manufactured” humanlike robots, as does his Alien series (skin coloring on the androids similar to R.U.R. play makeup).

And, if you look at the matte behind Elektro, you see a goddess? at the upper right, wearing a clear plastic dress strangely similar to one worn by Zhora the android in Bladerunner:


(check in about 30 seconds)

The appearance of R.U.R. on Eric shows how widespread the belief was that robots were “just around the corner” nearly a century ago. Today, with major advances in technology, robots are still “just around the corner”.

So, have we really progressed? We have sophisticated industrial robots, but they are more like the parts of an animal, or a cell enzyme in complexity. The first industrial robots date from 1801 with the Jacquard Loom...

And some of our robots can walk, which took Honda hundreds of millions of dollars.

Asimo robot walking forward with left palm upraised in friendship

(interestingly, Honda hasn’t realized that Flash is Dead – still forms the Ui on their website.

And…we have big electric puppets which, if anything are even less of a true robot than Eric was. The tech is better, for Robothespian (another U.K. showbot), but the fakery is greater.

Robothespian pretends to be alive

…But…they’re not Robots that Jump.

Like Electro and Eric, modern robots pretend to think…to keep alive the techno-religion concept that the robot age, first told of in R.U.R., is upon us.


NASA Robot – Tele-Operation for Mars Mission?

Some good photos today of the Valkyrie humanoid robot body, a testbed for developing more agile Robots That Jump. The robot was developed at  NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Valkrie Robot

The R5 robot is supposed to serve on missions to the planet Mars, and “beyond”. The article describes a future with the robot working autonomously on a base which NASA would establish on Mars years ahead of human astronauts. In other words, the astronauts wouldn’t land in Martian wilderness, instead coming down to a nascent Martian town created by robots of this type.

The actual description of use is described in NASA’s current plan for Mars, at this link:

NASA plans a gradual approach to the planet, which might include astronauts in “transit” vehicles who fly by or orbit Mars, but never reach the surface. In addition, robots will be used to maintain equipment landed on the Martian surface long before the astronauts arrive.

Two questions, though…

  1. If we have robots, why send humans to Mars at all?
  2. If NASA is farming out these robots to universities due to lousy software, do we have any realistic hope of autonomous robots, even in the 2030s timeframe that NASA has set for Mars missions?

The answer to the first question is easy. Maintenance by a humanoid robot would require fine motor control, and no humanoid robot has that currently. NASA entered this robot in the DARPA Humanoid challenge, but it, like the other robots, didn’t fare so well, even when in tele-operation instead of autonomous mode. Hence, farming out the robot bodies to schools. While is is possible there will be a breakthrough from these efforts, it is also quite possible that the delicate motor control required for, say, adjusting solar panels or tightening gears would be beyond even a 2030s robot. So, humans will be essential.

Second, the NASA plan shows what is really being looked for is tele-operation. If NASA plans a stage where astronauts orbit Mars without landing (possibly staying at one of the Martian moons) then their likely job will be to make the robots work down on the surface. From earth, the delays in sending and receiving radio signals prevent tele-operation. But in orbit, the delays would be a fraction of a second, making it practical to control the robots in real time.

So, what we really have going to Mars is not a true Robot That Jumps, but instead a robot body, probably controlled via a virtual reality interface with haptics (touch feedback). This, unlike self-governed robots, really seems practical – or at least as practical as a Mars trip in general.

So, the human counterpart the Mars robot might be a very excited astronaut, as below:

Beardboy has great excitement in his VR world.

Of course, NAS probably won’t allow beard, but you get the picture.