Pentagon demonstrates humanoid robot

Pentagon's robotic rescuer a shaky first step on the road to 'Robo sapiens'

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 1:49am

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 last week.

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.

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 US$2 million prize.

Some see Atlas' unveiling as a giant - though shaky - step towards 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, a company that's 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 towards 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.