Posts Tagged ‘Boston Dynamics’

France Recruits SF Writers as Military Strategists

July 22, 2019

I’m afraid I’ve lost the cutting for this, so I can’t really give you the details. But it was reported in last week’s I that the French have recruited five science fiction writers for one of their defence organisations. I realise that some people will consider it so far-fetched that SF writers can have anything sensible to say on the subject of present day warfare or possible terror attacks, that it’ll sound like a joke to them. There may well be muttered sneers about these peeps protecting la patrie from the Daleks, Klingons or some other threat from beyond the stars. But there’s some very sound sense in it. SF writers have written about terrible threats to global security, wars and terror attacks almost from the very beginnings of the modern genre in the 19th century. Jules Verne described an anarchist waging war against the rest of the world in his story, Robur le Conquerant. H.G. Wells predicted something like modern tank warfare in his The Land Ironclads, although these massive vehicles were more like ships and moved on dozens of mechanical legs like centipedes. Another short story, The Stolen Bacillus, dealt with the attempted use of germ warfare by terrorists. In this story, an anarchist works his way into the confidence and laboratory of a biologist working on a new type of infectious germ. The anarchist seizes a vial of the cultures, and escapes, running across London with the scientist in hot pursuit. When it appears that he will be cornered and caught, the anarchist drinks the vial, deliberating infecting himself with the disease organism, and then runs on, taking care deliberately to bump into people. All is well, however, as rather than being a lethal pathogen, the disease is actually quite harmless. All it does is to make those infected with it turn a different colour. Which is either yellow or blue. The story may have had a happy ending, but for its late Victorian audience it raised a real, terrifying possibility.

With warfare moving into areas previously considered the realm of SF, like Trump’s call for a space force, the US navy testing laser weapons, war robots being developed by Boston Dynamics and the very real threat of cyber attack, it makes sense for the French to recruit suitable SF writers. After all, back in the 1980s before 9/11, one of the major thriller writers published a novel about a group of terrorists flying a plane into the Twin Towers. It’s possible that their recruitment by the military may also be a gesture to show how hip and modern Macron’s presidency is. Alongside old, trusted methods and guides, he’s turning to imaginative popular culture. But it also shows that we really are increasingly living in an age of Science Fiction.

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Video of Three Military Robots

October 23, 2018

This is another video I round on robots that are currently under development on YouTube, put up by the channel Inventions World. Of the three, one is Russian and the other two are American.

The first robot is shown is the Russian, Fyodor, now being developed by Rogozin. It’s anthropomorphic, and is shown firing two guns simultaneously from its hands on a shooting range, driving a car and performing a variety of very human-style exercises, like press-ups. The company says that it was taught to fire guns to give it instant decision-making skills. And how to drive a car to make it autonomous. Although it can move and act on its own, it can also mirror the movements of a human operator wearing a mechanical suit. The company states that people shouldn’t be alarmed, as they are building AI, not the Terminator.

The next is CART, a tracked robot which looks like nothing so much as a gun and other equipment, possibly sensors, on top of a tank’s chassis and caterpillar tracks. It seems to be one of a series of such robots, designed for the American Marine corps. The explanatory text on the screen is flashed up a little too quickly to read everything, but it seems intended to provide support for the human troopers by providing extra power and also carrying their equipment for them. Among the other, similar robots which appear is a much smaller unit about the size of a human foot, seen trundling about.

The final robot is another designed by Boston Dynamics, which has already built a man-like robot and a series of very dog-like, four-legged robots, if I remember correctly. This machine is roughly humanoid. Very roughly. It has four limbs, roughly corresponding to arms and legs. Except the legs end in wheels and the arms in rubber grips, or end effectors. Instead of a head, it has a square box and the limbs look like they’ve been put on backwards. It’s shown picking up a crate in a say which reminds me of a human doing it backward, bending over to pick it up behind him. But if his legs were also put on back to front. It’s also shown spinning around, leaping into the area and scooting across the test area with one wheel on the ground and another going up a ramp.

Actually, what the Fyodor robot brings to my mind isn’t so much Schwarzenegger and the Terminator movies, but Hammerstein and his military robots from 2000AD’s ‘ABC Warriors’ strip. The operation of the machine by a human wearing a special suite also reminds me of a story in the ‘Hulk’ comic strip waaaay back in the 1970s. In this story, the Hulk’s alter ego, Banner, found himself inside a secret military base in which robots very similar to Fyodor were being developed. They were also controlled by human operators. Masquerading as the base’s psychiatrist, Banner meets one squaddie, who comes in for a session. The man is a robot operator, and tells Banner how he feels dehumanized through operating the robot. Banner’s appalled and decides to sabotage the robots to prevent further psychological damage. He’s discovered, of course, threatened or attacked, made angry, and the Hulk and mayhem inevitably follow.

That story is very definitely a product of the ’70s and the period of liberal self-doubt and criticism following the Vietnam War, Nixon and possibly the CIA’s murky actions around the world, like the coup against Salvador Allende in Chile. The Hulk always was something of a countercultural hero. He was born when Banner, a nuclear scientist, got caught with the full force of the gamma radiation coming off a nuclear test saving Rick, a teenager, who had strayed into the test zone. Rick was an alienated, nihilistic youth, who seems to have been modelled on James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. Banner pulls him out of his car, and throws him into the safety trench, but gets caught by the explosion before he himself could get in. Banner himself was very much a square. He was one of the scientists running the nuclear tests, and his girlfriend was the daughter of the army commander in charge of them. But the Hulk was very firmly in the sights of the commander, and the strip was based around Banner trying to run away from him while finding a cure for his new condition. Thus the Hulk would find himself fighting a series of running battles against the army, complete with tanks. The Ang Lee film of the Hulk that came out in the 1990s was a flop, and it did take liberties with the Hulk’s origin, as big screen adaptations often do with their source material. But it did get right the antagonism between the great green one and the army. The battles between the two reminded me very much of their depictions in the strip. The battle between the Hulk and his father, who now had the power to take on the properties of whatever he was in contact with was also staged and shot very much like similar fights also appeared in the comic, so that watching the film I felt once again a bit like I had when I was a boy reading it.

As for the CART and related robots, they remind me of the tracked robot the army sends in to defuse bombs. And research on autonomous killing vehicles like them were begun a very long time ago. The Germans in the Second World War developed small robots, remotely operated which also moved on caterpillar tracks. These carried bombs, and the operators were supposed to send them against Allied troops, who would then be killed when they exploded. Also, according to the robotics scientist Kevin Warwick of Reading University, the Americans developed an automatic killer robot consisting of a jeep with a machine gun in the 1950s. See his book, March of the Machines.

Despite the Russians’ assurances that they aren’t building the Terminator, Warwick is genuinely afraid that the robots will eventually take over and subjugate humanity. And he’s not alone. When one company a few years ago somewhere said that they were considering making war robots, there was an outcry from scientists around the world very much concerned about the immense dangers of such machines.

Hammerstein and his metallic mates in ‘ABC Warriors’ have personalities and a conscience, with the exception of two: Blackblood and Mekquake. These robots have none of the intelligence and humanity of their fictional counterparts. And without them, the fears of the opponents of such machines are entirely justified. Critics have made the point that humans are needed on the battle to make ethical decisions that robots can’t or find difficult. Like not killing civilians, although you wouldn’t guess that from the horrific atrocities committed by real, biological flesh and blood troopers.

The robots shown here are very impressive technologically, but I’d rather have their fictional counterparts created by Mills and O’Neill. They were fighting machines, but they had a higher purpose behind their violence and havoc:

Increase the peace!

Boston Dynamics’ Atlas Robot Being Put Through Its Paces

February 24, 2016

This is a fascinating piece of footage showing Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot being tested. It’s a bipedal robot, with two arms, and the video shows it walking about, picking up boxes and placing them on shelves, It can also follow the boxes when they’re moved out of its way or reach, and right itself when its pushed over. It’s an impressive display of robot engineering.

From the look of it, Boston Dynamics were the manufacturers of the ‘Big Dog’ robot, which was supposed to help carry loads for the US military. This ended up being cancelled because its electric motors were too noisy for the covert missions for which the machine was intended to be used. I’m sure Atlas has been designed with a military role or disaster relief in mind, very much like Hammerstein, Rojaws, Mek-Quake and their metal pals in Robusters and ABC Warriors. We’re not quite there yet, and I have real qualms about the use of this technology. Not so much in the fears about Terminator-style robots running amok to exterminate humanity, but simply of the process of mechanisation replacing human workers. I’ve noticed that in shops and cinemas, the self-service machines are being used to replace human staff, and this process is likely to continue until about 1/3 of service sector jobs are lost in the next 20 years. Or at least, they will according to current projections. The end result will be Mega-City One, sprawling conurbations with a 95% unemployment rate due to robots replacing humans in just about all areas of employment.

One of the reasons historians and sociologists have put forward to explain why modern science did not arise in ancient Greece, the Islamic world and China, is that despite the immense inventiveness of these cultures, they only made limited use of the technological advances made by their natural philosophers and artisans. Both the Chinese and Islamic engineers produced automata. In China, there was an automaton serving girl constructed in the 9th century AD, which went round filling people’s tea bowls. The ancient Greeks invented a toy mechanical theatre, singing mechanical birds, and an automatic hand cleaner to allow visitors to the temples to wash their hands. In Islam, al-Jazari and the Banu Musa brothers similarly produced automata. These systems were, with exceptions, not applied to industry, but used as toys to amuse the upper classes. I think at certain times a brake was deliberately applied, because they feared the social disruption such developments might bring. It’s a Luddite attitude, but as the world faces mass unemployment through mechanisation, one that we should possibly appreciate as wiser than it appears.

Boston Dynamics’ Robotic Reindeer Pull a Santa Sleigh

December 24, 2015

This is a fascinating video from Boston Dynamics, the robotics division of Google. I found it through the over 18 site, 1000 Natural Shocks. It’s very seasonal, showing one of their young female employees driving around dressed as Santa Claus in a sleigh pulled by robotic reindeer.

The machines look like variations of the ‘Big Dog’ robot now being developed as pack creatures for the American military. I can remember way back in the 1980s 2000 AD ran a strip, Metalzoic, set in a far future Earth in which the entire ecology was dominated by machine animals. The few humans that survived did so as primitive tribesmen, dependent on cultivating the shape-shifting, carnivorous trafids. This displays brings robotic animals just a little bit closer.

Metalzoic Cast

And with the world currently in a dire ecological crisis with thousands of species already extinct or threatened with extinction, it also raises the spectre of the world of Philip D. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the book on which the classic SF film, Blade Runner was based, where the people of a devastated future world keep robot animals as pets, because the real, organic creatures are either extinct or too rare, and hence too expensive.

I’ve got some misgivings and reservations about robot research, because of the way so many jobs are being automated out of extinction. The Beeb broadcast a programme earlier this year on the subject. It’s estimated that about 1/3 of the jobs in the retail sector will be lost, thanks to humans being replaced by machines. So such devices aren’t the unalloyed good they are frequently claimed to be. But this is fun, and the science behind it ingenious and impressive.