The Uncanny Valley kicks you in the ass: freaky-weird disembodied robolegs

Paul Raven @ 30-10-2009

A brief scan of the intertubes shows that I’m pretty much the last person to see this, but just in case you haven’t seen it either here’s footage of Petman, a walking robot prototype from Boston Dynamics [via, and loads of other places]:

That’s just… hell, I don’t know what it is, I don’t have a word for it. Creepy, awesome, strangely intimidating? All of the above? Anyway, Boston Dynamics (whose name makes me feel like I should be in an episode of Fringe) are the people who brought you BigDog, the strangely pathetic headless canine pack-mule robot which has been bouncing in and out of the geek quarter of the blogosphere since around 2006. According to Technology Review, Petman will be used for research into protective clothing for military personnel, hence its inbuilt ability to sweat in response to environmental changes.

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking; we don’t even have robots smart enough to fetch our breakfast yet, but already they’ve designed one with the ability to sweat. I can’t help but feel there’s something deeply and disappointingly wrong with this development curve.

How dangerous could a hacked robot really be?

Paul Raven @ 09-10-2009

Robot scorpionThat’s the question SlashDot posed as they relinked to a research study at Washington University’s the University of Washington Computer Science & Engineering department entitled “A Spotlight on Security and Privacy Risks with Future Household Robots: Attacks and Lessons”, which reports on the potential for currently available household robots being hacked and exploited by malicious (or simply pranksome) third parties. [image by jurvetson]

Q. What robots did you study?

The RoboSapien V2, the Rovio, and the Spykee. Our versions were purchased in or before October 2008.

Q. Are you saying that I shouldn’t purchase one of these robots?

No. We are saying that there are security vulnerabilities relating to the specific versions of the robots that we studied. Any purchase decision will necessarily be made based on many factors, only one of which might be the vulnerabilities we identified. You may conclude that despite the vulnerabilities, one of these robots is right for you. In addition, we studied only three specific versions of the RoboSapien V2, the Rovio, and the Spykee. We have no reasons to believe that comparable robots from these or other manufacturers are more or less secure than the ones we studied.

Obviously the idea of your RoboSapien running amok in your absence is an admittedly minor worry – you’re unlikely to suffer more than chipped skirting boards or table legs. But looking just a little further ahead, the Washington crew are making a lot of sense; household bots are likely to become more prevalent pretty quickly, in direct proportion with their ability to do genuinely useful (or destructive) stuff. Security is rarely a high concern in consumer electronics, and the relentless ubiquity of spam is clear proof that you can’t realistically expect the average user to take adequate precautions either… so what seems like a bit of a gag now will probably be headline stories within a decade.

And it’s not just the household where the robot population is increasing – the damned things are cropping up everywhere, in all sorts of shapes and sizes and with all sorts of capabilities. Take, for example, the swarm of robotic bees that Harvard researchers are developing:

Harvard researchers recently got a $10 million grant to create a colony of flying robotic bees, or RoboBees to among other things, spur innovation in ultra-low-power computing and electronic “smart” sensors; and refine coordination algorithms to manage multiple, independent machines.

So, how dangerous could a hacked robot really be? Well, do I have any volunteers to enter that swarm of angry and compromised robotic bees?

Didn’t think so. 😉

Happiness is an amorphous beige robotic caterpillar

Paul Raven @ 08-10-2009

Funktionide by Stefan UlrichPart of the contract for the flat I rent states that I’m not allowed to keep pets, and there are plenty of other folk in the same situation. Plus pets are expensive – food, vet bills and so on – and demanding of your time. How might one get all the psychological benefits of pet ownership – the sense of affection and companionship, the amelioration of loneliness – without running into those obstacles?

German designer Stefan Ulrich has a solution in the form of Funktionide, a conceptual piece based around electroactive polymers acting as artificial muscles to embody a large amorphous shape-shifting object which will create the illusion of living company. [via PosthumanBlues]

The more design blogs I follow, the more I suspect I understand the motives behind conceptual projects like this… meaning that I suspect Ulrich has fully intended the Funktionide to be more than a little creepy and melancholic. Observe:

The notion of robotic pets – whether truly mimetic or otherwise – is at least as old as science fiction itself, of course. The main snagging point I have with Ulrich’s ideas is that I’m not sure loneliness will be one of the biggest problems in the near future, at least not for most people. It seems certain that our future is a predominantly urban one, which to me implies shared living spaces for the majority of people – it’s cheaper and more efficient, after all. Ulrich’s vision of this poor lonely chap in his spacious and stark white apartment doesn’t entirely match up with my own ideas about the singleton lifestyles of the next few decades…. what do you reckon?

Cyborg bugs and locust flight simulators

Paul Raven @ 28-09-2009

We seem to be on an insect tip here at the moment, so entomophobes may want to click away until tomorrow. This stuff’s even creepier than software ants, too – via (and many other places) comes video footage of the Pentagon’s latest experiments toward remote-controlling the flight of beetles with embedded hardware:

That’s more than a little unsettling, and I’m not usually bothered by insects. More details over at Wired‘s Danger Room blog.

But why build hardware into fragile real bugs when you could just build fully robotic critters? Obviously you’ll need to suss out the mechanics of their ability to fly, first… so you’re going to need a locust flight simulator like the one developed by a fellow called Adrian Thomas.

The simulator could be a big step forward for the many teams around the world who are designing robotic insects, mainly for military purposes, though Thomas expects them to have a massive role as toys, too. “Imagine sitting in your living room doing aerial combat with radio-controlled dragonflies. Everybody would love that,” he says.

Hmm. I think most folk would far prefer to have all insect combat confined to entirely virtual spaces, at least within the home. And by the time these proposed toy insects make it to the marketplace, you probably won’t need to actually pilot them yourself – after all, you can already build your own self-piloting and fully autonomous GPS-enabled UAV without needing access to a Pentagon-sized budget.

Robot hop

Tom James @ 15-09-2009

military-robotIn the latest of your monthly dose of robot drones coming to a theatre of war hopefully-some-distance-from-you we have news that DARPA have developed a remote military robot with the capability to jump over walls:

Most of the time, the shoebox-sized robot – which is being developed for the US military – uses its four wheels to get around.

But the Precision Urban Hopper can use a piston-actuated “leg” to launch it over obstacles such as walls or fences.

The robot could boost the capabilities of troops and special forces engaged in urban warfare, say researchers.

It occurs to me that in a couple of decades this kind of robot could have developed into a truly terrifying war machine. Imagine thousands of tank-sized versions of these, each containing a really pissed-off synthetic cat brain programmed to zap humans with a tactical high-energy laser.


[from the BBC, via h+ Magazine][image from h+ Magazine]

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