Robots That Jump

Robot Bodies Needed Before Robot Minds

Occulus Concepts – 1939 and 2014

Here’s a current image of the virtual reality system by Occulus




Here’s a concept model for a similar system from 1939.



Probably, there are no cathode ray tubes small enough in 1939 to create a mini-3d TV system…but we can dream of someday….tech changes, but ideas (like personal “full vision” media experiences) remain more constant.

Atlas Shows Greater Agility

The move to more agile robots continues, and more importantly, the belief that a useful and/or “intelligent” robot must be agile.

Somewhat crazed reporting by the normally sober Daily Mail (UK)

The numbers begin to look right for Atlas (DARPA/Boston Dynamics) – 28 joint, hydraulics instead of electric motors (hopeless for natural joint movement). The robot needs a tether (it can’t run on internal power), but its software (Florida Institute for Human and Machine Interaction) is geared to agile motion rather than engineer-style motions.

The Daily Mail article even makes the agility connection, which is unusual. Most media coverage of robots assumes superhuman strength and motion, and focuses on the (apparently) evil minds of our “future overlords.” Instead, the articles show a link to a karate contest, which, like a plyojump, is an impossible thing for all robots to date to perform. Most stories about robots try to imagine the dark thoughts in their (nonexistent) brains. In contrast, Atlas is touted as being able to get into a car and drive it.

Despite this inchwise progress, we are still mostly stuck in the robot fantasy vs. reality. The robot is called a “he,” despite is lack of genitals and ability to reproduce. And (sigh) we are supposed to be scared of this “terrifying” robot, which looks like a bunch of picnic baskets welded together. I doubt that Atlas could win a karate match, or triumph over a 6 year old with determined fists. The tech-religion aspect of robotics continues, despite moves to the contrary…

Robots that Shuffle

Progress on the development of agile robots, with the Boston Dynamics/DARPA humanoid robot Atlas dragging a heavy object. In particular, the heavy truss being dragged is “unmodeled” – in other words, the experiments didn’t fix the results by pre-coding the dimensions and weight of the object into Atlas. Dynamic adjustment = one small step for Robots that Jump!

Compare to related videos by the Atlas group:

While this demonstration is impressive (given the incredibly lame performance of humanoids over the last 20 years) it still is far from a “robot that jumps.” In particular, the robot had internal sensors but no external sense. The slow, old-man shuffle the robot displays prevents the truss from banging into its legs. At the speed the robot is moving, you can see the truss tapping the lower leg on a regular basis.

While animals may be clumsy, they are not clumsy in this way. The reason is that they are “sensor-first” and “sensor-dense.” Classic robotics emphasized exhaustive computation from a few sensors, rather than shallow processing from a very large number of sensors found in living things. The result is robots that can do old-man tasks, but have trouble displaying the dexterity often touted for our so-called replacements.

Where will this work go? Given the interesting work Boston Dynamics did on multi-legged robots, one has some hope for Atlas. But it runs the risk of being another grad student demo, despite the fact that the methods of coding Atlas responses seem closer to biology than is typical in these projects.

But, as usual, this is lost on the tech industry, whose “reporters” still pad their stories by implying the robot is much more than it is…

It’s a good thing robotics engineers haven’t figured out how to make humanoids disgruntled yet.

Gizmodo (of course)

Moving smoothly in the world is a arthropod-level function. There are about 50 more levels necessary on any robot (even if Atlas moves faster than a super-old man someday) before we get to “disgruntled.” And it is NOT scary to see a machine do this – instead, it is a bit pathetic. Our machine overlords turn out be be shuffly old men.

Why has implying robots can do more than they can turned into a cute way to end a tech story? This is not the same as saying robots may be dexterous someday. And why do we need to be “scared?”

Frankly, I’m more frightened of super-sized cellphones.

Bionic trunks and robotic food

An example of an unconventional robot motion system from a very interesting company, Festo.

This mechanical version of an elephant’s trunk (or octopus tentacle) could change how robots are used.

This same company is experimenting with a robotic kangaroo, whose leg mechanism can recover energy during hops like a real kangaroo.

Finally, their eSpheres project tries to implement a clould of gnats, which circle in a defined space of air without colliding:

These are very interesting projects, though they also lead to creepy future visions of robot gnat drone swarms annoying us, possibly even including man-machine music from our fave robot band, Kraftwerk.

Also, the drone swarms might not just circle, but fly like birds…liike those seen in the COLLMOT Robotic Research Project:

Meanwhile, the non-jump robots advance in triumph everywhere, in people’s minds if not completely in reality. Here’s an update of the “Robot Nation” argument posted by Marshall Brain a decade ago on the end of fast food jobs.

Obviously, the CNN journalists (sic) didn’t know and/or mention this work.

A companion article on Brain’s site discusses Robots in 2015. Since this was written a decade ago, it will soon be possible to test prediction vs reality in this case. Brain suggested that it might be hard to create true Robots that Jump, and suggested an intermediate state was a undereducated dumbass with a headset strapped on, ordering them to do “agile” things in the fast-food kitchen and bathroom. This would allow automation of the business model (e.g. a central computer treating all the fast food places as a gigantic machine) while cheaply automating the parts that are hard for robots to do.

As usual, things are being oversold. After all, food automats have been around for a long while, but we don’t automatically glom onto their machine-like method of food delivery. But we assume that people will want the high-tech version of fast food because, it’s well, “progress.”




Some Resources

It’s always worth looking through aggregrators for stories on robotics. Unlike the one-off in the general tech press, they are often worth reading:

Robotics Business Review

Robotics Trends

Meanwhile, the desire for (and to be) a lame sex doll continues unabated:

(the picture of the humanoids is priceless!)

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.

Some people understand limits

A nice article in the NY Times today, on the DARPA Atlas robot. The author emphasizes the gap between fantasy and reality.

A few points the article makes:

The robot has to be tethered, since a slight mistake (e.g. a fall) would destroy it

The robot requires huge amounts of energy to operate, impossible to supply via current battery technology

The robot takes all day to move a couple of boards

Now, this is not an attack on the designers and programmers. Instead, it is a tribute to just how hard it is to make any robot do anything at all. Kudos to John Markoff, senior writer for The New York Times for getting it right.

Another kind of limit is discussed by the following article:

Here, the “killer robots” are mostly mis-interpreted as self-actuated “terminators” – when in face, they are almost all tele-operated drones. In short, the article, and many of those commenting in the article, act as if the problem was robots, rather than the people puppeting said metal puppets.

The final link is to a practical robot, primped to act more like an autonomous robot of imagination. After all, automatic milking machines have been around for many decades. Like the Mars rovers, there has been a deliberate attempt to make the machine seem more humanoid than it actually is. Sigh.

But, OMG what if these robotic machines get loose. What if they don’t just milk cows, but EVERYONE? Mayhaps we need a worldwide ban on autonomous milk-bots…before it’s too late!

This seems to be the theme of (yet another) Wired magazine article on how the robots will take over…

Silly, because Marshall Brain discussed this in his “Robotic Nation” articles a decade ago:

Next-Gen Boston Dynamics

Here’s a link to a newer walking robot than “Big Dog”, called “Alpha Dog”. It demonstrates that, unlike the mostly futile efforts to create true Ai, with a lot of work, you can create a Robot That Jumps.

Here’s a related post:

In the first video, we see silent (?) operation – the system appears to be running on battery power. In the second, we can hear the familar noise of a fossil-fuel engine. If we leave out the “power problem” we have a early walking robotic prototype. It’s really entertaining to see how the final design is more Goat than Dog.


NASA “robot” is finally used correctly

Here’s a change in NASA’s Robonaut program that illustrates the problems with Robots That Jump.

Picture of man wearing modified Robonaut hardware, allowing him to stand and do knee bends

The right use for Robonaut hardware

Three cheers for NASA! The new version of the NASA Robonaut program is an exoskeleton for a human. In other words, attempts to make the “robot” smart on its own are on the back-burner, and instead, we’ve put a soft, wet, mushy human at the center of the robotic frame. Robonaut, which was formerly dumb as a stump, is now smart because its exoskeleton is powered by a human brain instead of a computer.

This illustrates how much better agile robots are than so-called “smart” robots. Smart robots try to think, and computers have proved a woefully inadequate way to implement thinking. Considering the huge size of a “cloud” language parser/search engine like Siri (another DARPA project, like agile robots), it isn’t going to be easy to make anything that will fit into a robot body. In fact, it is becoming harder and harder to imagine a robot not connected constantly to a 50,000 computer cloud service, just to move and talk. The chance that this can be shrunk into a few hundred watts of onboard hardware is a pipe dream for the near and middle-term.

In fact, the hoopla over Siri as “the latest” artificial intelligence is overblown. Its amazing how many posts there are about Siri, without any attempt to understand or discover how Siri works. The mysterious “cloud” is enough, like the gods on Olympus were once enough.

In fact, the concept has been around since the 1980s at Apple, as this video of an “Knowledge Navigator” or software “agent” (why we got “Agent Smith” later in The Matrix later).

Screenshot from apples 1980s Knowledge Navigator video, a precursor to siri

Looks like an iPad, got the form factor right

In fact, that video comes from the 1960s “The Mother of all Demos” by Douglas Engelbart, which shows the same disembodied voices (properly human this time) managing communication and search. Just like Siri, except the speech, like human speech, is more interesting than Siri.

doub engelbart showing future communication via computer networks

Talks better than Siri

In other words, Apple just added Artificial Intelligence to the Engelbart video since they were a computer company. Apple, and the rest of us, is desperate for machine intelligence, hence, the overblown ideas about Siri and the belief that Robonaut is somehow an early robotic intelligence (instead of just a pair of legs).

The software to create Siri was developed by DARPA in the early 2000s, spun into a company, later acquired by Apple. So, Apple got their Knowledge Navigator, running on Alan Kay’s Dynabook from the 1960s.

sketch of alan kay's dynabook from his 1972 paper

Looks like my iPad

Cool, but the future is the past. And it don’t help Robonaut, who is now reduced to a press-release pseudo robot, coupled with a practical robot body for humans. Will Robonaut someday be fondly viewed as the vision of a future intelligent astro-robot? Not likely, at least on a 20-year timeframe.

It’s not a new thing. But it’s not the kind of artificial intelligence that could make Robonaut speak, move its arms on its own, even to wave bye-bye.

In contrast, consider the plus of the Robonaut program. By focusing on making an agile robot body (despite all the stupid press reports about Robonaut’s intelligence) NASA has actually accomplished something. Contrast that to the thousands of projects that created an Ai-style brain in a clumsy, sensor-free body. But for the press, we still have to pretend we’re making some sort of metal man:

robonaut extending its hand, as if it knew what it was doing

Nope, it doesn’t know it is greeting you

Frankly, the idea of a humanoid robot astronaut is cool, but unlikely for a very, very long time. The what we have are the inhuman, tele-operated robot-like devices on Mars like Curiosity, which just failed to verify the existence of methane, a possible sign of life. Life on Mars is now less likely, due to good science. But Curiosity is just a pair of hands. Despite its greater complexity compared to earlier Mars landers and rovers, it can’t do much on its own, especially compared to a human geologist. But is is a decent robotic body for the task – a Robot That Jumps.

In fact, these intelligent robot astronauts are fantasy to the extent I’m surprised that NASA hasn’t jumped on other fantasies. Take the vampire train, or rather spaceship. Now that Edward and Bela are both vampires with ultra-tough bodies requiring little oxygen, and they have a strong sense of civic duty to they human race. In other words, their vampiric tissue is clearly the “right stuff” – they are perfect astronauts. Why not a sequel to Twilight with the undead couple signing up for NASA? How about alien bloodsuckers? Robonaut can be their sidekick. After all, the universe is soooo vast, there are sooo many stars, it MUST have happened somewhere!