ATLAS, the standard-bearer for the next generation of robotics, is back and better than ever. In fact, it’s fully 75% better than ever, as the newest version of Google and Boston Dynamics’ humanoid robot carries over only a quarter of its parts from earlier prototypes. Everything from the battery pack to the arm strength has been upgraded, and not just for the sake of it — DARPA is getting ready to have ATLAS “cut the cord,” along with the rest of the competitors in its challenge in robot AI. Soon enough, ATLAS will be stomping through simulated “disaster” (combat) zones to “save” (neutralize) “civilians” (whomever) with total autonomy, and with no tether to undo a fall.
The DARPA Robotics Challenge is getting harder — much harder — and as a result it’s pushing its robotic contestants into exciting new territory. Beyond physically severing the safety tether that has always followed the robots through testing, the next iteration of the challenge will test each robot’s autonomous coding through enforced communications blackouts of up to a minute. Blockages and undisclosed problems will interfere with the robots’ ability to navigate doors, stairs, even ladders; to make it through at all, let alone with a good score, ATLAS will need all the upgrades it can get.
Remember: whatever other rhetoric and hype that surrounds them, the robots in this challenge are weapons. I won’t belabor the point too much (if you’d like a more thorough complaint, try here), but the friendly, iMilitary vibe to the video below does grate a bit. While ATLAS is still involved in DARPA’s poorly disguised killbot program for now, Google is only playing out those contracts Boston Dynamics had signed before its acquisition; once those obligations have been fulfilled, the company will pull ATLAS from the games (as it did with the incredible SCHAFT robot last year) to honor its promise to avoid military robotics. To my knowledge, this makes Google the only company to properly acknowledge the challenge’s true nature.
With Google obviously gearing up for a huge push into consumer robotics, it’s thus interesting to view ATLAS’ upgrades in the context of less dramatic applications. Most obviously, the aesthetic upgrade makes ATLAS look far less menacing, with mirrored white body material clearly inspired by sci-fi. A better range of motion is probably the biggest practical upgrade, as the DARPA challenge (and real life) throws up obstacles of all shapes and sizes. The robot’s improved battery pack feeds energy to an all-new hydraulic pump (ATLAS moves mostly through hydraulics rather than electric motors), which provides more power while also being far quieter. Again, Boston Dynamics is clearly looking past the DARPA Challenge and on to the new goals Google has set for them.
SCHAFT is pretty cool looking too, though less like an upright humanoid.
It’s worth wondering just what Google is doing, developing two super-high-end robotics platforms (SCHAFT soundly beat ATLAS in the first round of the DARPA cup, despite being far less famous). Will the SCHAFT platform be geared more toward industrial applications, while ATLAS’ humanoid form heads for the home? Or is Google simply buying up anything that has the chance to outpace its own research, assimilating its strengths and eliminating a competitor? Realize that, at this point, Google has pilfered the military’s two best shots at early dominance of robotic military tech; if Google releases an industrial or a consumer robot that matches DARPA’s best efforts at that point, everyone from China to Iran to Venezuela will be able to adapt it to high-end military applications.
Remember when ATLAS used to look all menacing?
I don’t like sounding like a kook on these things, but seriously. This challenge is developing the technology necessary to allow a small group of people to execute a military operation with zero witnesses on either side, if the mission is lethal. We put a lot of trust in the consciences of soldiers as a check on corrupt commanders — so what do we do now? DARPA’s Robotics Challenge is in no way necessary to bring this future about, it’s looming no matter what we do, but we still don’t have to usher it forward with such a complete lack of self-awareness.