Yet another terrifying Boston robot roll call (with bonus DARPA Cylon)

Concept art for Boston Dynamics' LS3

In an uncertain technological future, it's nice to know we can depend on one thing: that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will always be into some seriously heavy shit. Responsible for such sinister-sounding past endeavors as the Sea Shadow and the MQ-1 Predator, DARPA permanently resides on the cutting edge.

Now, DARPA's brand of mad military genius is hitting close to home -- as the Globe reported earlier, they recently commissioned Waltham's Boston Dynamics to engineer the next generation of Big Dog, the rough-terrain quadruped that'll hump cargo through any condition and simply can't be toppled (at least not by mere mortals). DARPA granted Boston Dynamics a whopping $32 million to develop a new dog-bot (tentatively called the LS3) capable of shouldering up to 400 pounds of equipment in order to lighten the loads of squads of Marines on the go. The proposed robot will be able to carry gear for at least 20 miles and, like man's less creepy best friend, it will be programmed to follow the orders of a human leader/owner.

Check out some other freakish models that the evil geniuses robotics wizards over at Boston Dynamics have thunk up -- and, surprise, it's mostly bugs and dogs. That said, their recent unveiling of project PETMAN, whose human-like bipedal design (which we previously covered here) makes it look almost human, seems to mark a move up the evolutionary cyber-phylum -- we'll see where that goes.

Little Dog

So by now, you're all too familiar with our not-so-secret terror-crush on Big Dog. Next up on Boston Dynamics' list of cuddly-household-pets-turned-cyborg-workhorses is Big Dog's smaller, and altogether less intimidating, younger sib: Little Dog, a battery-powered droid currently being used in MIT's labs to test better ways of moving across different types of terrain.

Concept art for SquishBot

Proving, once and for all, that size doesn't matter, we present exhibit H, for Horrible -- a prototype that is eerily similar to iRobot's disturbing ChemBot. (Seriously, how many nature-blaspheming shapeshifting robots does this world need? Answer: ONE MORE.) SquishBot is a teensy-weensy harbinger of robo-terror designed to worm its way into crevices as small as 10 millimeters. Say, through a keyhole in your bedroom door, maybe. And then onward into your ear. While you sleep. At the moment, we have no videos of the SquishBot (which looks sort of like a steroidal centipede). But if you're really curious to see what it might look like in action, why not re-watch that scene in the Matrix where they extract that electronic silverfish from Keanu Reeves' stomach. Sweet dreams!

RiSE scaling a wall

You know that feeling you get when you look up from a good book and spot a spider skittering across the ceiling, and you just know it's clearly intent on parachuting onto your head and laying eggs in your brain while you sleep? Well, magnify that sense of dread by [INSERT LARGE NUMBER], and you've got our initial reaction to RiSE, a 6-legged mecha-critter with the ability to climb straight up walls. Looking a bit like a hybrid between a scorpion, one of those tropical lizards with the gravity-defying nanotube footpads, and maybe an armadillo, RiSE is capable of making its way up any surface its creepy little metal micro-claws can grasp. Trees, brick walls, carpet-covered desks ... it climbs 'em all. The only thing that keeps this Spidey-like bot from topping our list of animatronic aberrations is the fact that it moves at a fairly glacial pace -- which is not so terrifying at all, really. (Wait, scratch that. Maybe that's even worse.)

So yeah, that's some pretty scary stuff, Boston Dynamics. But for sheer quease-making, perhaps nothing can top DARPA's other new foray into artificial intelligence: BioDesign. Essentially, DARPA is interested in creating biological cyborgs designed to carry out the whims of their human overlords and live, well, forever. You didn't have to see I, Robot or, more recently, Surrogates (really, you didn't) to know this sort of thing never ends well.


--By Carrie Battan and Alexandra Cavallo

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