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The creepiest robot yet

Tue, 04/09/2013 - 2:28pm
Kasey Panetta, Managing Editor

There is an interesting inverse phenomenon involved in creating humanoid robots: The more lifelike they are, the creepier they become.

It’s not something that makes complete sense if you think about it. Theoretically, as robots become more human-like, they should begin to blend more into society and become less weird. Realistically, humanoid robots are still just a little bit off. They appear human, but they’re not quite right. The motions aren’t smooth enough, the facial movements are too simplified, and the result is something that’s even creepier than a non-humanoid robot. It’s just dissimilar enough to make you uncomfortable.

With that in mind, I present DARPA’s PETMAN, a humanoid robot designed by Boston Dynamics with funding from the Department of Defense's Chemical and Biological Defense program. This particular robot—which will now haunt my dreams—is being used to test protective gear.

Now, take a moment to imagine an entire army of this creepy guys, unnaturally marching towards you. Terrifying. [Editor’s Note: It should probably be noted I have a very active imagination. ]

PETMAN is actually a pretty interesting humanoid. It has embedded sensors that check for any leaks or outside hazardous chemicals coming through the suit. Plus the “skin” is able to “sweat” and regulate temperature, so it’s an accurate way to test the suits without endangering anyone.  When you strip it down to just the robot, it looks more like a test dummy, but when it fills out the uniform with the gas mask, it becomes just a tad too creepy for comfort. But it serves a very important purpose as researchers look for ways to make protective wear more effective.

You have probably heard about PETMAN's “cousin”, the AlphaDog Proto, a less human-like, 4-legged,  “battlefield companion” capable of carrying 400 pounds of supplies for up to 20 miles.  To me, the stability of this creature is the most amazing aspect. It can climb over rocky terrain, take large leaps, and stabilizes after taking a pretty solid kick.

At some point in the future, designers are going to get it all right. The gaits will improve in timing and smoothness, the voice and features will evolve in complexity, and the “thinking” processes will rival an average human.  In the meantime, all jokes of a robotopocalypse aside, these battlefield companions and different robots are serving a great purpose in the military field.

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