Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

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.

This Robot is NOT “Giving a TED Talk!”

What a bunch of dumbass.

Robot “Gives a TED Talk”

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 7.45.33 AM


This robot is not giving a speech. A human is giving a speech, and operating an electrical puppet in order to present themselves as something other than human.

While the tech itself might have some uses (e.g. deep-sea tele-operation) we already have LOTS of tele-operated devices.

And, we have had puppets speak for us for a LOOONGGGG TIME…



Now. Punch is more interesting to watch than the droning robot above, and in addition, conveys nuances of emotion lacking in the floppy arms of the robot. However, both Punch and talking robots are both injecting nasty messages. In the case of Punch, it is domestic violence, and (as we see) disrespect for authority. In the case of Robot, it is the illusion that there is a robot that could give a Ted talk.

There is nothing like this. Even Watson, IBM’s system that comes closest to being an actual artificial intelligence, could not create, much less present a “talk.”

So, what do we have. In Punch, the creators encourage us to laugh at somebody gettin’ a beatin.’ In the case of Robo-puppet, we have someone encouraging us to believe the live of intelligent robots “ready to take over.” Sheesh.

Robots that Jump, Instead of Robots that Pretend to Think

A string of articles in the media about teaching robots by knocking them over:

The key problem has been engineers misunderstanding the problem of walking. In a typical engineering style, the participants at the DARPA Humanoid Challenge emphasized keeping their robots upright. They expect that if the right algorithm is created, the robot will be able to stand upright. The problem, for them, is standing upright.

But in nature, this is NOT the problem solved by agile animals. Instead, they are trying not to fall down and damage themselves. The goal is a higher level. Animal is actually trying to survive. Survival may require walking or running, but that is secondary.

In particular, not being damaged, and trying to break your fall if your (sic) perfect algorithm fails is what animals do. Compared to designed robots, animals always have a plan B, C, D…

So, it might even be that the robots could end up walking with better balance than humans someday. That’s their goal. But that doesn’t solve the problem of an agile robot. The problem is getting from here to there and not getting damaged. A person ultimately might be more clumsy on their feet than a future robot, but unless the engineers change their goals, the person will do better, since it is also adapted to fall down gracefully, walk funny if requested, even crawl if that works better. These are not “fails” but part of the locomotion process.

Engineers have to get away from thinking that falling down is a failure of their algorithm.

As might be expected, the Falling Down work was done at Georgia Tech, known for its ongoing interest in Robots That Jump versus Robots that (sic) Think.

This work is coupled with a story about Honda. The company wants to make a version of its Asimo robot that is agile (instead of a big electric puppet) that can climb stairs and crawl. Now, Honda has a pretty interesting show-robot with about 15 years of experience now. However, I wonder if they are seeing the problem correctly, and will include “falling down” as an active engineering goal, rather than one to be avoided by their algorithm.

This is good, since to date the Asimo has been a marketing tool rather than a truly agile robot.  Despite its friendly shows, it was useless when disaster struck a few years back, and a robot able to walk, fall down, and get up again in the tangled wreckage of a nuclear plant would have been great.

Finally, as a bit of a counter-trend, a report that people want “flawed” robots.

This is dumb. It is sad to see journalists regurgitate this stuff without applying the critical thinking they supposedly learned in school!

The idea here – quite wrong – is that robots will act perfectly, and have to be “broken” somewhat to be acceptable to humans. This is nonsense. The problem is the pointy-headed, beard-scratching engineers who defined what “perfect” behavior was in the first place.

Who put them in charge? The following quote from the Tech Times article above is telling…

At the first part of the interaction, the robots showed off their flawless capabilities. Afterwards, Erwin committed errors in remembering facts, while Keepon exhibited extreme sadness, happiness and other emotions through sounds and physical movements.

The result was that the respondents preferred it when the robots seemed to possess human-like characteristics such as making mistakes and showing emotions. Researchers concluded that a companion robot should be friendly and empathic in a way that they recognize users’ needs and emotions, and then act accordingly.

In fact, the problem is not that the robot was too perfect. Instead, the robot has no understanding of its social context. It acted incorrectly for the situation. Leave it to an engineer to see autistic-level social ignorance as perfection! The research then faked things by breaking their robot. It made the people sympathetic, but didn’t actually improve the conversation.

It is more like trying to get people to accept phony robot minds by creating pity for them.

What is interesting is that this IS a change from the other “big idea” that roboticists have had – if robots can’t carry on human interactions, make people become more machinelike so robots can understand them. If robots can’t recognize people, wear a tag with code it can access. If it can’t talk, have people say only certain things. If it can’t walk (typical of many robots) have people carry it through areas require walking.

All over the world, you can see the trend caused by the failure of Artificial Intelligence – make people act more like machines so machines can understand them. If we broaden the definition of robot to ‘bot, as is often done, we can see this in action.

For example, web pages have to have lots of extra code added (“called Search Engine Optimization or SEO) for the search engine spiders to read. This is because no machine can actually read a web page intelligently, much less figure out if two people in a picture are wearing regular clothes, or actors wearing costumes in a play. So, if we are “writing for the web” we must actually write for people, then turn around and write for machines. Otherwise we have a lousy score in Google. Now, if we would only communicate in a way that machines could understand…that would be “perfect.”

So, the article about making robots flawed is actually about creating the right kinds of “trick” to make people accept already flawed robots. Clearly, according to this, a robot that acts like the one in the Tech Times article is NOT behaving perfectly. It doesn’t understand the environment it is in, since the social environment that humans create with their brains is too complex for it. It talks in a stupid way, which is redefined by engineers as the Platonic, “perfect” way to relate. It does not have any sort of ideal or perfect intelligence.

This goes to the deepest problem with many robot designers. They think they can create a being superior to humans, which in turn is defined as a collection of “ideal” behaviors they’ve cobbled from half-remembered liberal studies courses. All the science fiction they read imagined robots as superintelligent, superstrong godlike beings. Therefore, they try to make robots that walk “perfectly.” If that fails, they re-declare human behavior as “flawed” and “break” their robot so people feel enough pity for them to interact.

Here’s a great example. An engineer would see a flaw in the image below. A graphic designer would see a clever idea:


But here is a real mistake, that probably cost someone their job.


Is there any “intelligent” robot assistant that could tell the difference? Nope. Their apparent math-style “perfection” is actually a deep, deep flaw. Trying to “trick” people into accepting such an inferior intelligence by having it “fumble” to create human pity is immoral.

For thez guyz trying to create the perfect robots of imagination, people are the problem, and the “beautiful mind” robot has to be dumbed down to relate to mere mortals. This attitude has to change, or Robots will Never Jump.

I’ll take a bunch of dumb-bunny robots falling over for real – not “faking” it – any day. It is an honest, rather than a sneaky flaw. That is REAL imperfection, not the phony kind. At least our laughter at the comic robots at DARPA is genuine.



Dumb Robots try to (Really) Walk

The recent “robots falling down” videos from the DARPA Humanoid challenge are fun to watch, especially since I fell myself last week and managed to sprain a wrist. Compared to the old “Asimo climbs stairs” videos, there has been some progress (though, alas not as much as most people think) in making functional humanoids. Unlike the stage shows for the Japanese robots, these machines are trying to function in a more natural environment.

Oopsie for the Hubo!

Ouch! Fortunately, these robots don’t have a lot of sensors, so taking a fall isn’t so bad for them:

Strangely, these machines seem most real when they are “unconscious” and being carried away in a stretcher – for once they don’t seem “mechanical.”

As usual, the results (which are interesting, but very far from useful) are hyped relentlessly:

Human-Level Intelligence? I’d hate to meet this moron.

Considering the sidebar of “related videos” on YouTube, the public’s imagination has already jumped ahead to robot sex slaves. But…if they are soooo clumsy at walking, what will they be like in bed?  Ouch, get that metal limb out of my face!

Wired says not to laugh at these robots. Well, well, I am laughing!

Any robot that was truly intelligent would laugh as well.