- 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?
My least-favorite thoughts I had while watching this video, in no particular order:
- That robot is being developed by DARPA, which stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. As usual with the government, that name tells you everything and nothing at once. You figure, OK, DARPA probably develops new military technologies, and you’d be right. They’re just particularly imaginative about what constitutes “new” — it’s less “make an awesome new gun” than “create powered military exoskeletons (definitely)” or “actually make a flying armored car (seriously)” or “make a plane that flies a million billion miles an hour and has working jaws on the front (probably not, but don’t mention it around any of the DARPA guys). It’s a robot that runs, but it’s not going to JUST be a robot that runs, if you catch my drift.
- Robot’s awkward gait transforming into a confident gallop right around the 20-mile-per-hour mark is incredibly unsettling and suggests to me that the thing is actively learning how to be a better, faster, stronger death robot.
- Most animals have wide, soft-padded feet. Robot has what appears to be monomolecular stabbing needles for feet.
- You know — you just know — that they’re going to put a knife on it.
- Sound of robot’s skittering feet brings to mind what a spider would sound like if it were the size of, say, a well-fed pig.
- Realization that freaking DARPA is probably working on a gigantic spider robot as we speak.
- Robots can’t climb stairs, right? Need to find the nearest tall tower and prep for the Robot Apocalypse.
- God DAMMIT.
- Thanks a lot, DARPA.
The moon landings were the kind of defiant audacity that should knock you on your ass just for the fact that we attempted them in the first place. Consider: Apollo 1 failed in the worst way possible, burning up on the launchpad and killing astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee. This is the kind of tragedy that quails our courage and consigns good ideas to that part of the map marked “here be dragons”, but the spirit of the time would not allow it to close off our hearts to the moon. Flight director Gene Kranz said in a speech to Mission Control that NASA’s response to the accident was to embody the words Tough and Competent — that is, accountable and thorough in their approach to every subsequent mission. It was an engineer’s credo.
Neil Armstrong was an engineer — he would, in his later life, teach aerospace engineering at the University of Cincinnati — and a test pilot. This put him in a unique position of being able to figure out exactly why the thing he had been flying had tried to kill him. Engines would explode, or stop working, or work a bit too well, and Armstrong would calmly work the problem until he fixed it or the problem became unworkable. They chose him to fly all kinds of planes with “X” in their designation (for “experimental”), planes which seemed to rattle to pieces from the sheer excitement of what they were designed to do. Armstrong flew the X-15, the fastest manned aircraft ever built. On one of his flights, an error in his descent caused him to overshoot the airfield at 2,000 miles an hour — no big deal for Armstrong, who calmly turned his death rocket around and threaded his way between the trees to safety. Neil Armstrong flew planes at 4,000 miles an hour, at 200,000 feet, big round number planes that spoke of a big brave future.
We make drones, now. They have pilots, but those pilots sit in a computer bay thousands of miles away, watching through cameras. If the connection is broken, the drones simply fly in circles, lazily waiting for orders. They have names like Predator and Reaper and Switchblade. Neil Armstrong flew craft called Shooting Star and Starfighter and Gemini.
The science-hero was a staple of early pulp novels — heroes like Indiana Jones or Doc Brass who used their educations as often as their fists*. Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made the moon landing into their own pulp novel — they very slightly overshot their original landing area, which would have sent them into a touchdown zone filled with boulders and assorted debris. Armstrong made a call to land the module manually, which he did with Aldrin making speed and fuel calculations in his head. Two men, all alone in a rocket ship, testing their knowledge and nerve against the world’s most stressful math problem. You can try a simulation of it here. It’s not easy.
*Aldrin once punched out a moon landing conspiracy theorist. I hope he lives forever.
Armstrong and Aldrin left behind several things when they blasted off the surface of the moon, back to a rendezvous with Michael Collins in the Command Module. One of those things was an Apollo 1 mission patch, emblazoned with Grissom, White, and Chaffee’s names. We responded to death with bravery and science and no small amount of sentiment.
Neil Armstrong is dead, after accomplishing everything a man could dream to accomplish. Our space program, in a world where an Xbox carries more processing power than Mission Control’s best computers, is reduced to probes and drones and piggybacking off Russian rockets. We owe it to him and Aldrin and the astronauts of Apollo 1 much more than that. Our tragedies should always be followed by triumph. We owe them the moon, again. We owe them Mars. We owe them the solar system and beyond. We owe them the universe.