- For Chrissakes, like the one that could run fast wasn’t enough. Now you’ve got one that can cross rough terrain. My plan of hiding out in the forest is going to have to go through some revisions. New plan: treehouse?
- Earlier versions of the Big Dog were really, really loud. The thing emitted a grating whine that somewhat decreased its utility as an instrument of war. This one? Much, much quieter. I’m not saying this thing is going to be a robot ninja, but I’m not cool with it creeping up behind me while I’m sitting outside, reading Infinite Jest and drinking port and being insufferable.
- Great, now I’m thinking of a robot ninja. Mortal Kombat has a robot ninja, and one of his fatalities has him self-destruct, blowing up the entire world in the process. Robot ninjas are a bad idea, no matter how cool you think they might be.
- DARPA have gotten very cute with the Big Dog before, putting out videos like “Big Dog Weaponized” in which they cheekily strap a set of steer horns to the front of it. and send it mock-charging at nerd-matadors. I will all-but-guarantee you that you’ll see that same title re-used again in a video five years down the line, only this time “Weaponized” will mean “we strapped a minigun and two side-mounted rocket launchers to it”. Version 2.0 will have a heat sensor so Big Dog can find you and your family huddled under the rubble of your house, which was destroyed in the Robot Apocalypse. Version 3.0 will come in black.
- Let’s talk a little bit about the Uncanny Valley. It’s a concept in robotics that states that a person’s affection for a synthetic object will increase in direct proportion to how realistic said object looks, up until a point. Once it gets to that point, our attitudes toward it almost universally plummet. If we make it even more realistic, that objection disappears. That drop in affection, on a graph, looks like a valley, hence the name. The reason behind this is in dispute, but we think it has something to do with what we emphasize. If you have, say, one of those cute dancing robots, your mind focuses on how it’s like a living being. Look at it dance! It’s so cute! Just like I would dance!
- On the other hand, if you have something like this: You start noticing how it’s not like a living being. It doesn’t sweat, your mind notes, with a racing panic. Its movements are jerky and unnatural. There is no soul behind its dead, robotic eyes. It reminds you of a corpse, except it’s moving. Basically, it trips all the sensors our brain has for identifying things that freak us out. This was largely the problem with the movie The Polar Express, incidentally. We love Tom Hanks, but an animated not-realistic-enough Tom Hanks is basically a charming zombie.
- The Big Dog is obviously a robot, at least at this stage of its development. In at least one sense, however, it’s creeping very close to the Uncanny Valley. Take a look at this early prototype, in a test of how well it can navigate icy terrain (skip to about 53 seconds in): When its legs start to splay about, desperately attempting to find purchase on slippery ground, I feel two things in equal measure. One is a bit of sympathy for what I perceive as an animal in distress. The other is terror and no small amount of hatred. Its legs are real, but they’re not alive. They’re attached to a motor. My brain wants me to smash bad thing with rock.
- Still, hey, robots are pretty cool, huh?