Figure One

Science. Communication. Community.

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s a robotic cheetah and it’s running really fast.

Google buys another robotics company, taking stock in those that run, climb and jump in eerily life-like ways. Welcome to the uncanny valley. And plenty of YouTube videos.

by Kelly April Tyrrell

A butterfly stretches its wings//K. Tyrrell

A butterfly stretches its wings//K. Tyrrell

Unless you’ve been living under a rock made of luddite, you’ve probably heard of Google Glass.  The strange pair of glasses, for lack of a better descriptor (Cyborg eyewear?), allows users to perform a variety of tasks, hands-free.

As a cyclist, there have been times I have sped down a hill, bucolic rolling farmland rushing past, wishing I could take a photo with my brain to share later. As a runner, I have often lost momentum digging out my phone to snap a photo of a bird or a striking sunrise, frost-covered trail or sunlight filtering through trees. 

Google Glass would make that and more – video, route-and-pace tracking with Strava, instant directions – possible and less cumbersome.

But just when I thought I could start to accept Google’s new piece of wild technology, the company went and did something crazy. It bought its eighth robotics company. With the purchase of Massachusetts-based Boston Dynamics, Google now has robots that can run. Really fast. In incredibly freaky, life-like ways.

Here, just watch this video of Boston Dynamics’ robot – now Google’s – called Cheetah:

Some of the other robots created by the company (located in Waltham, MA, where I coincidentally have stayed while traveling to run marathons in nearby Beantown) can also climb, jump, navigate treacherous terrain and remarkably, respond to being knocked off balance in ways that are eerily and impressively human-like.

Google hasn’t explicitly announced what it plans to do with its ever-expanding robotic fleet. All eight companies have been purchased within the last six months.

Boston Dynamics had contracts with the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Google said it will honor these contracts, but does not plan to enter into any more. After watching this video, it’s easy to understand the military’s interest:

Boston Dynamics has several videos and by now, I’m sure you get the picture.

If you’re like me, watching some of these – dare I say – creatures, move and respond makes you feel a bit uneasy. There’s actually a term for the phenomenon: uncanny valley. The uncanny valley is that space where the life-likeness of the robot and your comfort level are inversely related.

These robots seem to be doing more than just reacting to human inputs. They are responding to their environment and changing their behaviors. They seem … alive.

The authors of a 2012 study in the journal Cognition summarized it nicely: “In particular, we suggest that machines become unnerving when people ascribe to them experience (the capacity to feel and sense), rather than agency (the capacity to act and do).”

But really these robots are another example of a form of biomimicry, where nature informs innovation. The millions or billions of species on Earth have all been specialized in their own way to survive and reproduce, performing specific functions thanks to very specific forms. Or maybe it’s the other way around. But why reinvent the wheel when you can recycle what works? Evolution has already taken care of the hard part.

Low-power screens inspired by butterfly wings, looking to leaves for transportation and distribution design, planes framed around the bones of birds. There are already countless examples of nature showing us how to do it better.

Uncomfortable or not, it should not be a surprise that Google’s new cheetah runs almost like this:

But nature still has the upper hand. The metal cheetah – while she can now take down Usain Bolt in a track race at a whopping 28-29 mph – is left in the dust. Real cheetahs can achieve 60 mph.

And they’re a heck of a lot more beautiful.


About kelly tyrrell

runner. science writer. prairie lover. mountain dreamer.

One comment on “It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s a robotic cheetah and it’s running really fast.

  1. Pingback: Robots. Lots of robots. And vitamins, a PSA. | KAT Writes

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This entry was posted on December 20, 2013 by in Nature, Technology and tagged , , , .
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