Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Irascible Robots (not ‘fighting back’)

Robots That Jump are designed to interact in the real world, ignoring the silly fantasy of creating ‘mind’ in a machine in order to interact. The removal of that phantasm leads to better operating devices. And there’s no better illustration of this than the recent Boston Dynamics video of a robot trying to go through a door, hindered by a human.

In the video, you can see the robot opening a door, oddly by using its combined head/arm to push it open and move through. The human does several things to stop it – including changing the door position and dragging the robot away. After each attempt (which might be compared to a child tugging on a dog trying to drink) the robot returns to its course of action.

From the perspective of Robots That Jump, this is awesome. BD had integrated one of the basic features of life – irascible behavior. This goes all the way back to Aristotle’s, Augustine’s and Thomas Aquinas’s idea of the properties of life, hardcore link here.  Basically, ‘dumb animals’ – those with now elaborate ‘mind’ to understand the future can have a passion, or emotion that drives them to their goal against obstacles. You see this in the simplest forms of life – an energy to continue existing or accomplish a goal. Suppose an earthworm lands on a sidewalk. Its initial desire is to get back into the ground. However, the ground is concrete. A ‘rational’ worm, or a typical robot would just stop at that point. However, the worm wiggles wildly and in ways that are not normal for it, continually trying to do something that gets it closer to its goal. Sometimes a thrash and a roll might land it back in the grass, and the worm returns to its wormy world.

Note no ‘mind’ is needed for this – just an initial drive to accomplish something, plus unexpected resistance which is matched with (creative?) exploration of ways around the obstacles. This is one reason emotions are believed to have evolved. Emotions don’t provide a computed solution – they drive an animal to accomplish things when it runs into resistance. Nor is this exclusive to animals – plants react irascibly to rocks and sidewalks in the way of their roots, exploring around until they run into a solution. In that case, there’s not only no mind, there’s no brain. None needed for the plant, or a Robot That Jumps.

However, the pop-culture vision of robots as godlets who will overthrow us or have a “message” to give us (see the miserable “robot citizen” Sophia) can’t see this robot as doing something robust and lifelike. Instead, they imagine mind…a mind storing up all the grievances of insults received, for a later reckoning with humanity.

The science-as-magic media (including so-called “science journalists” who, for example never bother to ask if it is even possible to for Elon Musk to physically move a million people to Mars by 2062) portray the Boston Dynamics robots as having conscious mind, unjustly attacked and thwarted. Additionally, they see a grudge developing which will be paid back.

This is crazy.

Does a tree get made and plan to “get even” when we put concrete over some of its roots? No. Mind and payback are the province of very advanced social animals, where remembering benefit and harm from other members of your social species is useful. Most animals and plant’s don’t bother with it at all. But they do have irascible behavior.

However, a robot carrying a grudge fits into the techno-religion that has replaced classic religion in the supposedly secular world of the tech hipster. It’s a belief system that sees us rushing to Apocalypse jwith us tech-sinners incapable of properly worshiping the gods we have created – for which they will either punish us a.k.a. Skynet, or replace us, a.k.a. Singularity. To be taken seriously, tech-prophets like Musk and Hawking must warn us of the anger of the gods, and demand our repentance (I guess that means buying more iPhones faster).  We must eat of their flesh (“embedded computing”) to preserve some particle of ourselves in their awe-ful and righteous power.


This is just an earthworm trying to get home.


Too bad there wasn’t a beheading…

Even Forbes, which should know better, has its lame reporters reporting on the “mind” of Sophia, the first “robot citizen” of Saudi Arabia.

This big electric puppet, with some small “ai” features useful in tricking children into thinking it is alive, is claimed to have mind and emotions.

After characterizing the robot as a publicity stunt, the article then moves on to beauty contest questions, e.g. “world peace”.

In practice, there isn’t any Ai on earth that could have reacted to the questions aimed at the robot during press conferences in an intelligent fashion. Instead, the robot uses ELIZA style reflection to appear intelligent (“what makes you think I am thinking about that”) along with canned answers that are supposed to seem wise. Apparently, the conservatives in Saudi Arabia don’t mind an idol-esque oracle being set up to answer our “deepest questions”. And since oracles are often blown out on drugs or gas seeping through cave walls, mayhaps that makes sense.

Business Insider has done a few articles that point out the clumsy voice recognition. But it makes a fascinating claim:

Sophia’s capacity for displaying emotion is still limited. It can show happiness — sort of.

Sophia fakes it


I put this image in because, to the robot (presumably a couple of Linux boxes) the nature of the “happiness” has been mapped directly to a collection of actuator movements. That, in turn implies that human happiness is simply a collection of muscles firing in a way to stretch the face. The amazin thing is that there’s no concern about a subjective – nobody wonders if Sophia actually feels “happy” or “sad” internally. In fact, the robot makes a face when something (e.g. a keyword) causes a sub-program to execute.

Whatever human emotion is, it is unlikely to be a Von Neuman machine ratcheting through alternative subprograms. The brain’s structure is so different from a computer that its is nearly impossible that this be true.

In Ai, however, analogy is often used to refute the argument. Flight, for example can be achieved by bird or insect wings in completely different ways. So the argument goes that emotions can be created in similarly analogous ways.

The problem is that nobody has adequately defined what “happy” or “sad” are in the first place so that we can construct analogous ways of achieving it. The argument that Sophia is “happy” is the same as saying a corpse with its face stitched into a smile is “happy” if we can make that smile by attaching electrodes to the muscles – from Wikipedia entry:

Giovanni Aldini (Luigi’s nephew) performed a famous public demonstration of the electro-stimulation technique of deceased limbs on the corpse of an executed criminal George Foster at Newgate in London in 1803.[5][6] The Newgate Calendar describes what happened when the galvanic process was used on the body:

On the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.[7]

I doubt if a modern electrophysiologist would conclude that a recently dead body was “happy” if the muscles twist. But replace that flesh with plastic, the electrical stimulus with a command out the serial port, and it is “feeling”.

Hoping that Hanson Robotics studies Behaviorist theory before making more silly claims about puppets.



I’ve been writing about the (incorrect) direction of much of robotics, along with the fakery which implies robots are more than they are for 15 years. The alternative I’ve pushed is building an agile body over “Ai” or “mind” popular with almost everyone. In my opinion, a mindless body that is physically agile – one that can reproduce the things even simple animals can do on a daily basis – is vastly more useful than a so-called “intelligent” robot.

Well now, Boston Dynamics, which has followed the “body first, then mind” approach, has finally come through. The newest version of the Atlas robot can jump and even do backflips in what looks to be an agile way:

The results are impressive. This is a huge, heavy metal robot showng agility. Small motions of the arms are being used to stabilize, which makes it look like a pretty complex control system. Though I am guessing this is pretty staged (change the box positions and the robot falls), it is a candidate for a true Robot that Jumps.

This follows on other robots designed to imitate living thins, in pursuit of agile behavior.

While these robots are finally meaningful (in terms of being real robots instead of fakey electric puppets), they are far from practical. The biggest issue is power supply – they use IMHO 20-100x times as much power as a comparable animal body to move. Electric battery density simply isn’t high enough for a human-sized robot to remain powered for more than a few minutes at a time. At present, you would probably need to use nuclear power to move these robots for reasonable operations – or big Diesel engines.

The other issue is muscles. Robots using electric motors aren’t very agile. Those using pneumatics can achieve lifelike motion, but it is impractical to power them standalone. I’m guessing the gasoline engines on the early BD robots supplied compression for the leg actuators – NOISY. These are not quiet, like the would be if a human did the same motions. The holy grail – elastic plastic and contractile muscle tissue – is a long way off. You see visions of such muscles in movies like Ghost in the Shell, but they don’t actually exist.

Ghost in the Shell - major shelling sequence

The closest we have is something like this combined electro (heating?) hydraulic muscle:

It took 30 years for walking robots to learn to jump, good muscles may easily take that long.

I’m guessing another 50 before something like Ghost in the Shell could be built.

However, a mental point might have been reached. With the debut of the BD robot, people may be less accepting of the stupid fake robots pedaled at SF conventions as somehow “real” or “the future”.  Mayhaps we’ll start ignoring the “mind without body robot”, typlified by the creepy sexist machines popular in the media:


In a word…this is a big fake puppet implying human abilities that don’t exist. And this machine can’t jump.


Nope, they’re NOT coming to get us…

Great shot of the Boston Dynamics robot falling offstage, after milling around confusedly at the back of the stage. Does wall = curtain?

Note the real problems – a body without any motivation in its head. Also, notice the pseudo-child reaction of the audience when the creators pick their bot up, and have it lift something. This pretended to be similar to an experience of a child learning to walk, when it was more like a puppet falling off a table during an earthquake.

The video points out the deceitful way that people currently discuss robots – lots of “I’m scared, coupled with a desperate desire to see their creature rise off the slab.” It’s a bit like tech movies (like Jurassic Park) that warn us not to “tamper with nature”, while giving money shot after money shot of the awesomeness nature tampering one can imagine.

At present, humanoid robots demonstrate they are still electric puppets, for all the agile advances (comparable to a bug walking, possibly). Yet they still fuel dreams of techno-religion as “man creates its god”. How different is this from sculpting an idol with a place for the priests to talk through?

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.



A Robot that “Crabs”

A fascinating robot out of Google’s Project X, via Schaft, which created some interesting robots in the past. Here, humanoid gait is abandoned for a largely vertical motion of legs

Alphabet’s secretive Schaft Inc. shows off new bipedal robot in Tokyo

And here’s the video:

Seeing the robot on the beach shows that biomimcry may be at work – of crustaceans instead of humans. Compare the robot on the beach about 2:20 into the above video to crab movement:

It also moves a lot like the robots in the classic SF Movie Silent Running

Why don’t robots work? The world is to blame!

An interesting article from Robotics Trends on the problems which will keep self-driving cars off the road for many years, despite the hype that their arrival is “just around the corner”

“Crappy US Roads Major Roadblock for Self-Driving Cars?”

Telling quote:

Poor lane markings and uneven signage on the three million miles of paved roads in the US are forcing automakers to develop more sophisticated sensors and maps.

In other words, the reason we don’t have robots is that the world isn’t up to snuff. It’s not that robots just aren’t smart enough to navigate the real world. Fix the world (by making everyone paint high-resolution lane markers) and robots can continue their expected takeover.

Now, imagine if we applied this to wheeled robots. Humanoid robots aren’t practical at present, as demonstrated by recent DARPA challenges. They blow up in complex environments with poorly marked walk regions and stairs. Is the solution to rip out all building stairs and clearly paint lines on the floor the robots can follow? Or, should people all move around in wheelchairs, so they move in the same way robots do? Does this fix the problem?

What this kind of reasoning tells us (which the article isn’t guilty of, btw) is that a passion for having robots around requires we don’t make smart robots. Rather, we re-engineer reality so that robots can understand it. This will allow “machine intelligence”.

In fact, changing highways everywhere would be so massively expensive and time-consuming that it won’t happen. Period. Self-driving cars will be practical only when they can navigate current roads.

The real story was relayed to Congress via Mary Cummings, the head of Duke University’s robotics program. A good podcast here:

In other words, the real headline should be

“Crappy Robots Can’t Navigate Ordinary US Roads”

Google Dumps Humanoid Robots

Apparently, Alphabet, Google’s Parent company, is planning to sell Boston Dynamics. This is the company that has been building humanoid and animal-style robots for several years.


Video at:


Interesting, this came right after videos were posted showing the BD humanoid robot stumbling through the woods like a blind man.

Why dump now, after this “triumph” – the reason is that Alphabet/Google is waking up to the very long time it will take to create useful robots – humanoid, animal, or even self-driving cars.

A great analysis here of the over-hyper in robotics:

In short, Alphabet wants to fund “moon shot” projects – but only if they can produce something useful in the next 5-7 years. Apparently, Google decided that the humanoid robots won’t be useful for more than ten years – in other words, they have no realistic way of generating anything practical for decades.

The military, which was funding the “dog-bots” in a wave of earlier viral videos, agrees, and recently shelved the “big dog” project. The reason? They are way too noisy. You can’t get enough battery into a robot to run it for more than a few minutes, and gasoline engines (which let it run for hours) will let everyone in 20 miles know you’re using a dog-bot.

This is a great example of fantasy vs. reality in robotics. The videos distributed by Boston Dynamics repeatedly imply that robots are “just around the corner” and spur the predictable, incredibly boring discussion about whether we should give robots rights, will they revolt, etc…ag. But they are puppet shows.

Anyone watching the videos should realize that these are tele-operated devices, not autonomous robots. In addition, their power supplies are typically incredibly dirty and noisy gasoline engines. There’s no practical use for such devices at present. People make almost no noise doing the same tasks, and are vastly more energy efficient.

The next to go: self-driving cars. There’s no way self-driving cars will be let onto public streets for many years. Safety boards will want exhaustive tests, far more than given to human drivers, and even very small fail rates will be a cause for swiftly banning the cars. In contrast, things like parallel parking are already present. That’s because they work.

While the work by Boston Dynamics has been incredible – compare their robots to those developed at various colleges and universities – it has become clear that making Robots That Jump is an incredibly hard challenge. The real “equity value” of Boston Dynamics is religion – people need something to believe in in a techo-utopian fantasy, and the imminent arrival of practical robots is part of that belief system. Even the supposed “fear” of robots taking over is part of that – most religions have a “end times” story to thrill the faithful.

Let’s admit that we want humanoid robots because we want them to exist, not because they are practical or even possible.


Most Advanced Robot on Earth Tries to Vacuum

The Verge is more honest about robotic tech than most tech magazines, and this gem is no exception.

The Roomba is a great example of a robot with appropriate tech for what it does. Relatively inexpensive, with limited programming and abbreviated sensors, it is a standard engineered robot.

However, it is not general-purpose – and the Atlas above strives to be so.

In my opinion, the problem is that the Atlas is too Roomba. It can do tasks, but in the video you can see the effort trying to deal with the vacuum. Why is that? It is because the Atlas, like the Roomba, is not sensor-dense. It (in all probability) can’t parse the noise of the vacuum to know if it is doing the job. A person, or even an animal trained to vacuum, would do so. For Robots That Jump, “sensor-dense” is the way to go. It runs contrary to the optimization ethic of many engineers – but the messy, sensor-dense approach that animals make is the one that lets them vacuum better than a Roomba. Think starfish instead of mammal.