Robot Smog and Hyperbolic Robot Smog

Squarely occupying our Robot Smog category we have the breathtaking imagery of a Big Dog – like robot bounding and galloping at speeds well exceeding your ability to, well, avoid feeling threatened:

Brought to us by Boston Dynamics, the company that has been pioneering new levels of dexterity and ambulation for some years now, the press rightly recognizes that the inventions will find their way into our physical world and, with that advent, we will face new forms of robo-hazards that are just thought experiments today. Betsy Isaacson on Huff Post does a good job with her post title: Don’t Worry, That’s Just a 4-Legged Robot Running at You. Gearburn suggests that Wildcat “runs into our nightmares.”  Of course the Wildcat you view today on YouTube is noisy, but you can wave that unstealthy sound away with better energy storage, so I don’t think you’ll have quite as much warning as you might want. How will our social interactions in a game of soccer with 7-year old kids change if these ‘bots are running around in the grass on the boundary? We have certain common ground assumptions concerning dogs and their owners that gives us a sense of what is and isn’t safe. But it will be a clean sheet when it comes to people and their running ‘bots.


Now turning to press hyperbole, we move from galloping to jumping. Sophie Curtis in the Telegraph and many others reported last week on self-assembling cube robots, called M-Blocks, out of MIT. The stories are technically somewhat accurate, but the headlines and suggestions are pure hyperbole: “Terminator-style self-assembling robots unveiled by scientists.”  Anyone reading this will think the end is night. Of course, self-assembling robot concepts have been around a very long time- here is a campy video about Intel’s Claytronics project, also known as the Programmable Matter project, from more than five years ago:

Of course, M-Blocks are really fascinating. They have reaction wheels, and that’s a great way to move these legless and armless ‘bots around on each other. Scaling them down and dealing with power and computation is, however, a problem that really keeps Terminator at bay for a long, long time.


In the end the hard part is avoiding suffocation by poor robot smog signals while appreciating the real advances that are going to change how society functions. Good luck with that balancing act.

One thought on “Robot Smog and Hyperbolic Robot Smog

  1. JR

    Illah, this point comes back to a problem that has often plagued me (but luckily not caused me to lose any sleep) – how does the responsible, good natured, best intentioned researcher or scientist convey through the press the potential significance of his/her research without letting the author of the piece grab the spotlight with highly inaccurate yet amazingly beckoning article pieces? One response is (as I believe the BBC does), link to the original research. But how can we, potential scientists, assist the journalistic community in sharing in our exciting revelations, but keep the conclusions and repercussions of our work tempered in that dull, resolute grandpa called reality? (I dont know why I needed to be so dramatic – just trying to add weight to the question that plagues me)


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