by Nicholas West
July 15, 2013
In the age of computers, things
In just a few generations robots have
gone from a scientific fantasy, to a playful curiosity, to entering
the battlefield to replace and/or augment their human counterparts.
We are already at the point where we have to consider what the next
step of robotic evolution looks like. According to robotics
engineers, it appears that at some point in the near future the next
step could very well be whatever the next generation robot chooses
The humanoid robot is now poised to take a leap from a mere
facsimile of human behavior to one that futurists suggest will not
only walk like a human, but will possess self awareness, as well as
a full range of high-tech computational spectrum analysis and
capabilities... and emotions.
So far, development in humanoid robots has been limited to their
A level of advancement has now been
achieved that it is leading to serious concern about the economic
humans being outsourced to robots for tasks as diverse as
service, manufacturing, nursing, housework, yard maintenance and
Some are predicting that robots of all
types could fully
replace humans by 2045. Artificial intelligence is now advancing
to a point where a new type of brain can be offered to compliment
the relatively menial tasks of modern-day robotics, hinting at the
next stage of evolution.
It is typical of any science with military applications to evolve in
a dual- or even multi-use fashion.
For example, humanoid robots were
initially advertised as a study in how to benefit those who have
lost limbs; and, indeed, this has been a noted benefit. However, the
real money - the black budget money - goes into applications which
can be downright frightening.
DARPA, which had already been
working on its own projects, but through its Robotics Grand
Challenge has spurred a huge influx of inventors looking to receive DARPA funding to offer the next generation of humanoids.
The Challenge has been couched in the
comforting language of "disaster response" research, but what is
emerging seems to be capable of far more than that:
The primary goal of the DARPA
Robotics Challenge program is to develop ground robotic
capabilities to execute complex tasks in dangerous, degraded,
The program will focus on robots
that can utilize available human tools, ranging from hand tools
to vehicles. The program aims to advance the key robotic
technologies of supervised autonomy, mounted mobility,
dismounted mobility, dexterity, strength, and platform
Supervised autonomy will be
developed to allow robot control by non-expert operators, to
lower operator workload, and to allow effective operation
despite low fidelity (low bandwidth, high latency, intermittent)
From the task section:
The specific tasks are:
The robot will maneuver to a
open frame utility vehicle, such as a John Deere Gator
or a Polaris Ranger. The robot is to get into the
driver's seat and drive it to a specified location.
The robot is to get out of
the vehicle, maneuver to a locked door, unlock it with a
key, open the door, and go inside.
The robot will traverse a
100 meter, rubble strewn hallway.
At the end of the hallway,
the robot will climb a ladder.
The robot will locate a pipe
that is leaking a yellow-colored gas (non-toxic,
non-corrosive). The robot will then identify a valve
that will seal the pipe and actuate that valve, sealing
The robot will locate a
broken pump and replace it.
The robot will be tele-operated, at
least at the supervisory level.
DARPA will control the
communications bandwidth and latency, in order to make the task
more difficult and force higher levels of autonomous behavior.
If necessary, this control over communications will be used to
discriminate performance levels between competitors and select a
The goal of this Grand Challenge is
to create a humanoid robot that can operate in an environment
built for people and use tools made for people. The specific
challenge is built around an industrial disaster response.
The current array of robots designed
over the last few years to match human capability demonstrate what
is listed above, and then some:
An anthropomorphic robot designed
for testing chemical protection clothing. Its range of motion
allows it to balance, walk, crawl, and even climb stairs, while
also having the ability to simulate human physiology such as
Battlefield Extraction Assist Robot.
Demonstrates a wide range of capability, while adding a
A new level of robotic hand that
employs an opposable thumb to increase dexterity vs. the robot
seen above which uses plier-like grips.
The ARM is capable of unlocking and
opening doors, as well as picking up thin objects like cards or
This might seem like a goofy
novelty, but golf is an extremely precise sport with a lot of
room for error - humans can play for decades and never reach a
level of mastery.
The golf robot can fire shot after
shot with stunning accuracy from a long distance. This ad for
the European Tour has the added benefit of offering the
"coolness" factor to all ages.
And, naturally, this has all evolved into anything but fun and
games. The evolution of PETMAN is an actual Terminator-like robot
Meanwhile, even mainstream institutions
like Cambridge and major international human rights groups say that
are one of the greatest threats to humanity.
However, these are still just workhorses and advanced tools of human
For these creations to get to the next
level, they have to become self-aware and eventually autonomous. The
computing power is certainly arriving as evidenced by what has been
achieved through flying drone swarms and work being done on
battlefield systems such as MUSIC.
Ray Kurzweil's website featured a story about Samsung's Roboray,
which just got a major upgrade.
Roboray still has an obviously robotic
physical look, but its "intelligence" is increasing:
Roboray can now build real-time 3D
visual maps, so he can walk around without being spaced out and
Roboray has stereo cameras (one in
each eye), allowing him to build a mental map of its
surroundings, and to “remember” where he has been before. That
kind of autonomous robot navigation will also come in handy in
places where there’s no GPS signal.
Furthermore, its walking demo as shown
in the video below make it appear more humanoid than its initial
outward appearance, something desirable for those who seek to make
the human-to-robot emotional connection:
Roboray walks in a more human-like
manner by using “dynamic walking” - actually falling at every
step, and using gravity to carry himself forward.
Which is how humans naturally walk.
So this makes him better accepted by
people and more energy-efficient, says team leader Dr. Walterio
Mayol-Cuevas, Deputy Director of the
For the next phase of development, it is always important to watch
the battlefield, but we should also watch for the signs of marketing
that aims to normalize the robot presence in our day-to-day lives.
This is being attempted through next-level artificial intelligence
called Embodied General Intelligence (essentially, common
The next phase of humanoid robots are
those that become virtually indistinguishable from us. There is no
lack of effort to try to make this happen. Here is an ongoing
Indiogogo project to give humanoid robot Adam Z1 a real brain.
This is an effort that also has
These two videos leave nothing to the
imagination as to what the endgame is: not only the economic
acceptance of robots, but the emotional acceptance.
Not that long from now,
full-sized humanoid robots will be in wide use as personal
assistants, etc. And cheaper versions will be widespread as toys
before long: think “RoboSapien with a cute face and a
So the team has formed
GENI Lab, whose medium-term goal is,
“the creation of a life-sized
humanoid robot featuring,
a realistic, emotional
face and personality
a fluidly moving body,
based on the integration of analog, digital and
an adaptive general
intelligence, utilizing the OpenCog architecture and
the DeSTIN machine vision system
capability of simple -
but socially and emotionally savvy - communication
in English and ultimately other natural languages
communication about its
physical environment and its tasks and behaviors
Once the humanoid robot merges with fully autonomous intelligence,
we will have witnessed the next stage of evolution toward
the full Transhumanist dream of
The Singularity - the moment when computer intelligence
surpasses that of humans to such an extent that humans become
Robots already have transformed our human world and are rapidly
If The Singularity is reached, in tandem
with military funding and direction, we can expect the darker
version of science fiction to rise above any notion of attaining
human freedom and leisure on the backs of our machine counterparts.
How much of this technology should be embraced, and how much
Now is the time to set the boundaries.