Moving its hands as if it were dealing cards and walking with a bit of a swagger, a Pentagon-financed humanoid robot named Atlas made its first public appearance on Thursday.
C3PO it’s not. But its creators have high hopes for the hydraulically powered machine. The robot — which is equipped with both laser and stereo vision systems, as well as dexterous hands — is seen as a new tool that can come to the aid of humanity in natural and man-made disasters.
Image: Atlas was designed to learn quickly on two legs. The Pentagon-financed humanoid robot could, one day, come to the aid of humanity in natural and man-made disasters.
Atlas is being designed to perform rescue functions in situations where humans cannot survive. The Pentagon has devised a challenge in which competing teams of technologists program it to do things like shut off valves or throw switches, open doors, operate power equipment and travel over rocky ground. The challenge comes with a $2 million prize.
Some see Atlas’s unveiling as a giant — though shaky — step toward the long-anticipated age of humanoid robots.
“People love the wizards in Harry Potter or ‘Lord of the Rings,’ but this is real,” said Gary Bradski, a Silicon Valley artificial intelligence specialist and a co-founder of Industrial Perception Inc., a company that is building a robot able to load and unload trucks. “A new species, Robo sapiens, are emerging,” he said.
The debut of Atlas on Thursday was a striking example of how computers are beginning to grow legs and move around in the physical world.
Although robotic planes already fill the air and self-driving cars are being tested on public roads, many specialists in robotics believe that the learning curve toward useful humanoid robots will be steep. Still, many see them fulfilling the needs of humans — and the dreams of science fiction lovers — sooner rather than later.
Walking on two legs, they have the potential to serve as department store guides, assist the elderly with daily tasks or carry out nuclear power plant rescue operations.
“Two weeks ago 19 brave firefighters lost their lives,” said Gill Pratt, a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, part of the Pentagon, which oversaw Atlas’s design and financing. “A number of us who are in the robotics field see these events in the news, and the thing that touches us very deeply is a single kind of feeling which is, can’t we do better? All of this technology that we work on, can’t we apply that technology to do much better? I think the answer is yes.”
Dr. Pratt equated the current version of Atlas to a 1-year-old.
“A 1-year-old child can barely walk, a 1-year-old child falls down a lot,” he said. “As you see these machines and you compare them to science fiction, just keep in mind that this is where we are right now.”
But he added that the robot, which has a brawny chest with a computer and is lit by bright blue LEDs, would learn quickly and would soon have the talents that are closer to those of a 2-year-old.
The event on Thursday was a “graduation” ceremony for the Atlas walking robot at the office of Boston Dynamics, the robotics research firm that led the design of the system. The demonstration began with Atlas shrouded under a bright red sheet. After Dr. Pratt finished his remarks, the sheet was pulled back revealing a machine that looked a like a metallic body builder, with an oversized chest and powerful long arms.
Though Atlas is hydraulically powered, its pump gave off a loud buzzing noise as it flexed its limbs and spun its arms in circles in a very unhuman motion. After the brief demonstration, the first Atlas was switched off and a second robot demonstrated walking on a long treadmill. Both robots remained tethered, to prevent them from falling.
|Honda’s Asimo robot during a demonstration in Tokyo on July 3.|
The Atlas robots, which are made from aircraft-grade aluminum and titanium and each weigh 330 pounds, will take part in the Pentagon contest.
Six of them will be given to companies that are being asked to program them for a competition next year, with a $2 million prize to the company that programs the robot most able to perform an elaborate rescue mission. The competition will be held at Homestead Miami Speedway in December.
The six teams, which were previously announced, are from the Florida Institute of Human & Machine Cognition in Pensacola, Fla.; Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; TracLabs in Webster, Tex.; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory; and Virginia Tech.
A wide variety of other teams that are building their own robots — some of which are exotic contraptions, not in humanoid forms — will also join the competition.
The contest involves programming the robot so that it is able to climb into a vehicle, drive to a destination, get out of the vehicle, cross a rubble field, open a door, use a power tool and turn a valve.
The robots will be linked to a remote host computer and guided by human operators. To add realism to the competition, the Pentagon research agency will vary the data speed available to the robots during the competition.
As a result, the systems that are more autonomous will have a significant advantage because they will be able to complete tasks while they are not under direct human control.
Later this year, the teams will compete with robots programmed to perform tasks separately. However, the Pentagon’s advanced research agency is hoping that within a year enough progress will have been made to have the robots complete a set of tasks.
The agency stressed that it was not interested in designing either offensive or defensive weapons systems. Rather, officials said, they want to build robots that can help the military provide assistance in disaster situations.
Dr. Pratt said that the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant inspired the idea to hold a contest focused on creating robots that could operate in environments hostile to humans.
Even before the Fukushima disaster, Marvin Minsky, a pioneer in artificial intelligence research, castigated the nuclear power agency for being unprepared for disasters.
“Three Mile Island really needed telepresence,” he wrote in IEEE Spectrum in 2010. “I am appalled by the nuclear industry’s inability to deal with the unexpected. We all saw the absurd inflexibility of present-day technology in handling the damage and making repairs to that reactor.”
Dr. Pratt said he hoped that the robot contest would have an impact similar to the autonomous vehicle challenge it began in 2004. “What the prior Darpa challenges did is that, by injecting all of these resources and by having a strong and visible competition, they really pushed the field over that hump, and now people know that it can be done,” he said.