DARPA, the technological arm of the Pentagon, has developed a robotic arm that can perform precise actions using tools, a huge leap forward in the evolution of robotics, but one that comes with potentially destructive implications.
Extremetech reports that, unlike many other robotics developers out there, DARPA has developed a cheap robotic hand, for under $3000, that can “almost match human performance in dexterous activities, like changing a tire.”
The report warns that the development could be “ominous”, in that our biggest advantage over other forms of life on Earth is that we have the ability and intellect to precisely use tools.
As highlighted in the following video, the DARPA robotic arm can perform detailed tasks such as using a pair of tweezers to pick up objects.
DARPA also notes that the developments shown in the video are now outdated, and that the latest models are much more advanced, performing tasks such as threading a nut onto a bolt, opening a zipper, and recognizing objects by touch.
Gill Pratt, a program manager at DARPA, told the New York Times that developing the ability to move like a human hand has a lot of important military uses.
The Extremetech report notes that these developments are “pretty cool”, so long as the machine doesn’t figure out how to “rise up against it’s creators”.
That may sound far-fetched, but it is something that experts have been warning about for some time.
Last year, when Department of Defense contractor Boston Dynamics announced that it now has a robot that can run faster than the fastest human on the planet, with a flexible spine to help it “zigzag to chase and evade,” Noel Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield, said the robot was “an incredible technical achievement, but it’s unfortunate that it’s going to be used to kill people”.
“It’s going to be used for chasing people across the desert, I would imagine. I can’t think of many civilian applications – maybe for hunting, or farming, for rounding up sheep.” Sharkey added.
“But of course if it’s used for combat, it would be killing civilians as well as it’s not going to be able to discriminate between civilians and soldiers.” he said.
Sharkey has previously warned that the world may be sleepwalking into a potentially lethal technocracy and has called for safeguards on such technology to be put into place.
In 2008, Professor Sharkey told listeners of the Alex Jones show:
“If you have an autonomous robot then it’s going to make decisions who to kill, when to kill and where to kill them. The scary thing is that the reason this has to happen is because of mission complexity and also so that when there’s a problem with communications you can send a robot in with no communication and it will decide who to kill, and that is really worrying to me.”
The professor also warned that such autonomous weapons could easily be used in the future by law enforcement officials in cites, pointing out that South Korean authorities are already planning to have a fully armed autonomous robot police force in their cities.
Boston Dynamics has also been contracted by DARPA to develop and build humanoid robots that can act intelligently without supervision, in a deal worth $10.9 million.
The DoD announced last year that “The robotic platforms will be humanoid, consisting of two legs, a torso, two arms with hands, a sensor head and on board computing.”
DARPA’s website says that the robots will help “conduct humanitarian, disaster relief and related operations.”
“The plan identifies requirements to extend aid to victims of natural or man-made disasters and conduct evacuation operations.” reads the brief, first released in April 2012 as part of DARPA’s ‘Robotics Challenge’.
The robots will operate with “supervised autonomy”, according to DARPA, and will be able to act intelligently by themselves, making their own decisions if and when direct supervision is not possible.
The Pentagon also envisions that the robots will be able to use basic and diverse “tools”.
“The primary technical goal of the DRC is to develop ground robots capable of executing complex tasks in dangerous, degraded, human-engineered environments. Competitors in the DRC are expected to focus on robots that can use standard tools and equipment commonly available in human environments, ranging from hand tools to vehicles, with an emphasis on adaptability to tools with diverse specifications.” reads the original brief.
The robots are set to be completed by Aug. 9, 2014, according to the contract.
Boston Dynamics has enjoyed a long working relationship with DARPA, during which time it has also developed the rather frightening BigDog. This hydraulic quadruped robot can carry up to 340lb load, meaning it can be effectively weaponised, and recovers its balance even after sliding on ice and snow:
The Big Dog now also has an arm, and has been demonstrated picking up and throwing heavy objects significant distances:
The company also developed RiSE, a robot that climbs vertical terrain such as walls, trees and fences, using feet with micro-claws to climb on textured surfaces:
In addition to a host of other smaller robots, Boston Dynamics is also developing PETMAN, a robot that simulates human physiology and balances itself as it walks, squats and does calisthenics:
While the Pentagon says the robots are for “humanitarian” missions, one cannot avoid thinking of the propensity to adapt this kind of military style technology for other more aggressive purposes.
Indeed, the Pentagon has, in the past, issued a request to contractors to develop teams of robots that can search for, detect and track “non-cooperative” humans in “pursuit/evasion scenarios”.
Issued in 2008, the request, called for a “Multi-Robot Pursuit System” to be operated by one person.
The proposal described the need to
“…develop a software/hardware suit that would enable a multi-robot team, together with a human operator, to search for and detect a non-cooperative human subject.
The main research task will involve determining the movements of the robot team through the environment to maximize the opportunity to find the subject, while minimizing the chances of missing the subject. If the operator is an active member of the search team, the software should minimize the chance that the operator may encounter the subject.”
It is seemingly important to the Pentagon that the operator should not have to come into contact with the person being chased down by the machines.