Just the other day, I was thinking that it must be some kind of indication about my personality that I got a warm fuzzy happy glow when I heard a newscaster on NPR use the phrase "giant robotic arms on the space station" and not be talking about fiction. Giant robotic arms! On the space station! The story in question was about astronauts on the space station preparing to do a series of long spacewalks, to repair or assemble the giant robot, and there's not a concept in that sentence that doesn't fill me with glee. We have a space station! With robots! Or at least robot arms.
Except that I'm experiencing some ambivalence about robots at the moment, thanks to this video of a robot prototype named BigDog, developed by Boston Dynamics. (If you're not the type who normally clicks through to YouTube videos, please do in this case--it's totally worth it.) And I do mean ambivalence--I'm split between two strong reactions, both of which are occurring somewhere around the gut level, rather than the intellectual level. On the one hand, oh good lord that's cool. On the other hand, there's something really creepy and disturbing about it. Watching the video, I kept thinking, this is for real? That's actually a robot, and not two guys in a robot suit like a pantomime horse? (If you have similar doubts, the part where it slips on the ice will cure you of them.) There's something about the video that also made me feel a little queasy--it might be the shaky camera, or the buzzing-insect engine sound, or future shock. They're all plausible.
The Boston Dynamics website describes BigDog as "the world's most advanced quadruped robot"; it also notes that the project is funded by DARPA, and that makes sense too. A robot like this is far more useful in a combat situation than in commercial use. I'm sure that functional concerns drove the physical form of BigDog--what little I know about anatomy suggests that quadruped motion is both easier to build and more stable than biped motion. I have to wonder, though, if there isn't a little voice in the back of the designers' minds that suggests that a robot like this, one that looks like a metal coffee table and moves like a creepy cross between a horse and a spider, would have a psychological effect in combat situations as well. If I'm this freaked out just watching it on YouTube, how would someone react seeing it out in the wild?
(Video found via Crooked Timber.)