The Roboticist Hit List

It’s inevitable. In the future, robots will wake-up to a glass of freshly squeezed human juice, before jumping on a tram powered by a sobbing naked man in a hamster wheel. Their only interest will be to enslave renegade humans, and make robo-clogs out of their skulls.

The remaining humans will be a bit miffed by this situation. Necessity will breed ingenuity and mankind’s only recourse will be to invent time-travel, return to the past and assassinate the scientists who spawned the machine menace in the first place. This is the approximate plot of James Cameron’s 1991 film Terminator 2. So, which of today’s robotics labs are most likely to be retro-sabotaged by agents from the future? Allow me to round-up three likely candidates…

Boston Dynamics

When the insani-bot regime marches into London, it will be on legs designed by Boston Dynamics. The lab develops two and four legged machines using principles of ambulation borrowed from nature, such as maintaining a vertical ‘bounce’ motion in the body. Coupled with the use of hydraulic actuators, these machines really walk, and not with the sort of care-home shuffle we’ve come to expect.

Big Dog, the proclaimed ‘alpha-male’ of their line, can hike 10km cross-country without refuelling, navigate rubble and ice, and can even recover balance following kicks from the almighty boots of its creators. Meanwhile, the lab’s high-speed robot, Cheetah, has just received fame for breaking the robot land-speed record, at 18mph. You’d better run, Usain Bolt.

Funded by the US Army, and DARPA, Big Dog and its brothers are being bred for war. The aim is to create machines, which can autonomously follow foot soldiers or GPS signals anywhere, while carrying bulky equipment or weapons. The current version of Big Dog can walk at 4mph, climb inclines of up to 35°, and carry a 340lb load.


The University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP Lab is developing eerie autonomous flying machines called quadrotors.

These hovering-menaces are like helicopters; however, they’re equipped with four symmetrically placed rotor blades. The smaller quadrotors demonstrate agility, which make Stretch Armstrong look rheumatic. On-board gyroscopes and accelerometers work in a feedback loop with the four rotor motors, adjusting their individual speeds 600 times per second. Combined with impressive AI, this allows them to autonomously flip, fly through moving hoops, and navigate confined environments.

Equally impressive is the cooperative intelligence being developed for these robots. Inspired by ants, the machines can communicate and collaborate on a local level to achieve common goals, with no need for centralised control. This allows them to band-together to carry heavy objects, adopt elaborate formations, and mug hapless humans.

With Barrack Obama recently signing legislation to allow the use of airborne police drones, we’ll be meeting quadrotors sooner than we think.

Cornell Creative Machines Lab

At the CCM lab, the machines themselves are becoming creative. Inheriting ideas from evolution, the lab specialises in providing robots with basic tool-sets, and leaving them to organise and develop themselves.

For example, the team ‘evolved’ a slew of weird, waddling walking machines. This was achieved using a computer model, which randomly combined robot-parts such as joints and motors, and simulated their ability to ‘walk’ around. The combinations that manoeuvred most successfully were selected and after many iterations, this spawned a menagerie of strange blueprints for walking robots. The best of these were then manufactured in reality.

Their machines are also developing self-awareness (of sorts). The team created a spider-like robot with no knowledge of its own physical form. The robot then experimented by sending random signals to its motors, and measured the effects of these on its sensors. From these relationships, it was able to create an accurate model of itself, and to devise its own creepy, slithering gait.

When robots are equipped to learn and adapt, there’s no telling where they might end up. Probably looking like 6’2” Austrian bodybuilders…

Niall Hill


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