A kaleidoscope of emotions unfolds as I watch this video of BigDog, the four-legged pack robot. According to Boston Dynamics, the robotics company that's been developing the system since 2006, BigDog clocks in at four miles-per-hour, carries a load of 340 pounds and can scale a 35-degree incline. (Its motor also makes it sound like one of those dogs with bees in their mouths so when they bark they shoot bees at you.) Now I don't know how many hours of video the DARPA-funded honchos at BD had to shoot before contributing this clip to the already vast trove of robot porn, but as it stands it's astounding to see this 165-pound metal greyhound trudge up forested hills and across snowy landscapes, pick its way over a pile of cinder blocks and bound over a series of faux crevasses. Some will tell you that the highlight of the montage is when the deceptively dainty dogbot slips on a patch of ice but, um, doggedly maintains its footing until finally righting itself. But for me the tensest moment is when some fellow walks into frame and delivers a forceful kick to dogbot's flank like an angry teenager who just finished reading How to Survive a Robot Uprising. Obviously, I cannot help but anthropomorphize BigDog. But why? I guess it has to do with the mind-brain's ability to infer willed action from abstract cues"”think motion-capture models of, say, dancers. Truth be told, I have a thing for cyber-animals, such as the atomic-powered dogs from Neal Stephenson's novel Snowcrash and this cuddly troika of death-dealers from the Grant Morrison comic book We3: Fantasy becomes nightmare, however, when I imagine one of DARPA's robotic beasties toting a machine gun on its back. Weaponized robots are already in service in Iraq, and at least one robotics professor fears the unchecked spread of pistol-packing machines that may one day be given a license to kill without human supervision. Sometimes robots malfunction, such as this South African antiaircraft cannon that killed nine soldiers last October and injured 14. And I'm sure we all remember the disaster that was the ED-209. We are likely safe from robots for the near future. My web colleague Christie Nicholson stresses in an IM chat that with today's artificial intelligence, "it's really really hard to even get a bot to climb stairs," adding that BigDog is "crazy impressive." (More on the dogbot soon from tech editor Larry Greenemeier.) I am nevertheless reminded of the concept of the sublime articulated by the inscrutable 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant: The dynamically sublime is "nature considered in an aesthetic judgment as might that has no dominion over us", and an object can create a fearfulness "without being afraid of it" (Â§ 28). [Wikipedia] I am not afraid of BigDog. But right now the only comic book on my mind is Magnus, Robot Fighter.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.