Our robot overlords

By Phil Plait | August 1, 2008 12:27 pm

Big Dog, the quadrupedal robotPersonally, I have no need to welcome our new robot overlords. I’ve seen way too many scifi movies to feel comfortable around anthropomorphic metallic beasties, which is why this video freaks me the heck out. It may not be humanish, but it’s definitely quadrupedal and incredibly life-like in its reaction to such things as a broad kick, a hill, and a slippery surface.

And that buzzing noise! If they want to terrorize a small town, they should paste fly wings on it and let it loose. Pitchforks and torches would follow quickly.

Still and all, wow. The progress that’s been made in such things is amazing.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Humor, Science

Comments (101)

  1. Andy Beaton

    I came here with a simple dream. A dream of killing all humans. And this is how it must end? Who’s the real seven billion ton robot monster here? Not I, not I…

  2. Celtic_Evolution

    Wow… I can’t remember a time where I felt such a strange combination of awe and queasiness…

    Except that one time I watched my cousin devour a 6 lb. burger at Denny’s Beer Barrel Pub…

  3. Heinz Pierce

    Very impressive piece of technology. They sure have come along way in the field of robotics. Still, it is a bit eerie to watch.

    As Phil mentioned, it would be fun to unleash a few of those around town by a local bar. At night.

  4. Stephen B.

    Wow! How realistic was the reaction of that thing to the slipping on the ice? Nice recovery. This is impressive.

  5. JSW

    Note to self: Stock up on harpoons and tow-cables.

  6. That is really cool! I wonder how complex the algorithm is.

  7. I have images of the Hunters in Half Life 2…scary

  8. Now make a lot of these with quiter engines and armed to the teeth, and you got yourself an army…

  9. Robbie

    Did they have to make the legs look like a large spider’s legs?

  10. Celtic_Evolution

    Pieter Kok said:

    I wonder how complex the algorithm is.

    Developed by Bostondynamics?

    I’m guessing it’s wicked complex.

  11. StevoR

    Um Off Topic but BA Dr Phil Plait sir .. can we have the second part of the “green stars” thread(s) soon~ish please?

    I’m eagerly awaiting it & trying to work out if it is Zubeneschamali (Beta Librae) or Rasalgethi B (Alpha Herculis B) or planetary nebulae or scontilation or ..what? 8)

    & while on requests : Any more news or thoughts on that mystery “ring to puzzle” planetary nebulae without a white dwarf but with two white giants in it instead as well? Y’know the one you asked for our thoughts on? (Mine being an O / B type shell star that then split in half!) :-)

  12. HV

    This is quit old. Big Dog was already walking in 2005 (… ok this is updated version but still)
    Here is video of beta version http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VXJZVZFRFJc

  13. StevoR

    Correction :

    That’s scintillation NOT ‘scontilation’ @#$$#%$%#@ typos! :-l

    Please! Could we also, please, have the ability to edit these? Please?

    & is there any chance of going back to the good old non-Discover site hoster thingummy?

    Sorry Discover folks & no offence intended but having all the text squashed to the far left and all-garish orange hues and so forth means I’m frankly NOT very impressed with your layout / format /web thingummywhatsit I’m afraid. I much preferred the old BA blog pre-discover shift. :-(

  14. Justin

    Hey, Phil, if that really freaks you out, then maybe this “beta test” video will give you some of your confidence back. Or at least make you laugh.


  15. Celtic_Evolution

    But wait… haven’t you seen the latest edition of these robots?


  16. Trykt

    That was both terrifying and amazing. The war with the machines is coming.

  17. Bender

    Well we’re boned! ūüėČ

  18. Jim

    Wow, that is creepy as heck. Although somehow, its gait almost perfectly matches my internal image of a how a Pierson’s puppeteer walks (albeit with one extra leg).

  19. Bender

    A Futurama ref for thsoe pitiful few who don’t already know.
    (& Currently awaiting moderation. What the ..?!)

    Odd thing for a robot to say when you think about it .. 8)

  20. SteveT

    We (the human race) are totally screwed! Please don’t let them put bullet-proof armor around the processing unit. That may be our only hope for survival!

  21. john.o.kerr

    The part where it slipped on ice made my jaw drop. That’s amazing.

  22. Jose

    I just watched the most terrifying and disturbing thing ever, so this was a piece of cake.

  23. Jose

    By the way, the most terrifying and disturbing thing ever is subway scene from The Wiz. Jesus, what the hell were they thinking? Didn’t they know kids would watch this? I soiled my pants when I was five, and the outcome was no different today.

  24. Shoeshine Boy

    Quick, kill it before it multiplies!!!!!!

  25. DrNo

    EVIL!! EVIL!!!
    Its the fake leg covering that frakin creep me out.

  26. Celtic_Evolution

    If my comment ever makes it through moderation, I’ve put a link to another version of these robots… you may have to scroll a few posts up from here, but it’s worth it.

  27. Josh Miller

    Wow. This is an amazing acheivement. If we could find a way to power that without using gasoline it would be perfect for somewhere like Mars! I don’t know if solar power would be enough. Maybe a nuclear battery? Still, it wouldn’t last that long sadly.

  28. Ryan

    In some of those shots it looks like two guys carrying something, especially the ice scene. That thing creeps the hell out of me. BA is right, it really does seem “life-like”. It looks like its purpose is to be a pack mule for troops.

    My question is, can I ride one?

  29. Ryan

    Sorry to double post, but everyone check out their other robots, they are impressive as well, including one that climbs vertically!

  30. Our robot overlords have already been pwn3d via parody:

    They may eventually rule our species with an iron fist, but they will never take away our unquenchable urge to mock.

  31. @ StevoR: Sorry you don’t like the DISCOVER Blogs layout. Turns out it’s impossible to get a design that everyone likes. Maybe it’ll grow on you?

  32. It moves less like a quadroped and more like 2 bipeds. More than anything it looks like 2 sumo wrestlers or 2 rugby players in a scrum. Amazing none the less.

  33. phunk

    Now they just need to invent a quiet hydraulic pump.

  34. Per MarbleMad’s comment, see:

    If you look on YouTube for “BigDog” videos, there are a few different test runs.
    This is an impressive robot.

  35. They should put a voice sinthetizer on it, that would make it twice the freakyness.

  36. igor

    Send that thing to Mars with a camera!

  37. Greg in Austin

    Sounds like a leaf blower stuck on full throttle. That is indeed disturbingly awesome.

    Who made it, Cyberdyne Systems? Is that the T-1? Is it 3-Laws safe?


  38. Wendy

    That is downright FREAKY.

  39. Professor Frink

    You’ve got to listen to me! Elementary chaos theory tells us that all robots will eventually turn against their masters and run amok in an orgy of blood and the kicking and the biting with the metal teeth and the hurting and shoving.

  40. Chip

    I agree with Josh Miller. Imagine a future Mars rover that is an improvement over the great little rovers we now have, rolling across the surface, then when it comes to a crater it releases a walker rover similar to that machine to climb down for future exploration.

    That video is creepy though! That insect-like whine doesn’t help!

  41. ADB

    Obviously what it needs is a fluffy, animal-like exterior to give it that boost out of the uncanny valley. >.>

  42. travissimo

    Phil the sound is the chain saw that is waiting to plunge out of its spine and make a new slot into your body. lol

    All kidding aside, it does sound like they have a chain saw going at full blast to power the generator. Notice how quiet it is inside when connected to external power…

    i can imagine it now human resistance on the battlefield “Shoot the extension cord… no, no. I have my clippers.”

    Although it you stick the battery system from a Tesla Sport Car in this thing….

  43. Darth Curt

    Holy smokes… I know that the allusion was made to the AT-AT earlier in these comment, but ever since I was in Grade 6 and hefting my trumpet to school, I wanted an AT-AT to get me there… yeah… I thought big. Perhaps, one day my dream will come true. Then the rebels will pay.

  44. when the guy SHOVES it with his foot – that’s remarkable.

  45. Utakata

    Oh look…it’s a dog that doesn’t poop!

  46. Danniel B.

    That was both creepy and amazing. But to me somehow the remind of the striders in half-life 2, I think it’s something about the leg motion. Would be really cool to see one 200 meters tall.

  47. Meeee

    I think the idea of using it to run supplies to soldiers in the field is just a tiny fraction of it’s potential.

    Imagine… You’re fighting against the American army. They’ve recently pulled back their scouts from your territory due to high losses. Your troops are becoming more and more confident and less and less careful, since there appears to be no action around there.

    Then you hear a somewhat rythmic drumming off in the distance, somewhat like horses running. As the drumming gets louder, you begin to see smoke rising in the distance. Eventually you make out at least a hundred small running…. things, all sprinting towards you…

    Gah. Seriously. Give them some kind of “ram” or “headbutt” ability, stick some kind of noise generator on there (just use some creepy monster like the hunters or striders in HL2), and they will terrify pretty much any force they’re deployed against. Just imagine one bursting through your door and trashing your room in an attempt to knock you down. It’s pretty scary.

    But also *really cool*, from a purely technophilic point of view.

  48. Law Mom

    Recommended improvements:

    1. Give it a head;
    2. Add long eyelashes;
    3. Add one long pointy horn;
    4. Make it pink;
    5. Give it a long silky mane and tail;
    6. Braids optional;
    5. Name it “Misty” or “Rainbow.”

  49. Danniel B.

    I completely agree. Also some barbs and blades and general pointy things would help.

  50. Todd W.

    Very cool. Wasn’t freaked out by it, but that noise is annoying.

  51. Danniel B.

    (Note: I agree’d with Meeee, not Law Mom)

  52. gopher65

    That is one of the coolest things I have ever seen! That’s just remarkable. Robotics is progressing at an amazing pace:).

  53. Law Mom

    Yeah, yeah, I figured.

  54. It makes me remember the Silent Hill’s monsters!!!

  55. Yojimbo

    Big Dog is cool – I have their video from a couple years back, where it was mostly tethered. It looks like it can run fully autonomously now. And the 400 pound load was impressive. If I recall, the next generation should be able to run at 35 mph with a 300 pound load. Now if they can just get it quiet…

    WHile you’re at Boston Dynamics, check out their wall crawler – especially the time-lapse.

  56. This is extremely cool as a “pack mule” for the troops, but I can’t help thinking that it would be cheaper and easier to use an actual pack mule.

    Pack mules have many advantages: they are much, much cheaper to build; they are quieter; they find their own fuel; they don’t break down as often; when they do break down, they can self repair; and if they can’t self-repair, you can eat them.

  57. Meeee

    @Sean Ellis

    I have no source for this (since I can’t remember where I read it. I’m sure I read it somewhere relatively trustworthy though), but I think the idea behind using the BigDog in the military is to run supplies out to wounded/stranded/in-action soldiers.

    The benefits for this would be fairly obvious. You can just give it a GPS location and off it goes carrying medical supplies/rations/extra ammo/whatever to whoever needs it. You don’t need to “waste” an extra soldier to lead the mule to the destination. Plus I imagine it’d be given some kind of armour or protection, so a stray bullet isn’t going to bring it down (and it won’t get startled and run away from the sounds of battle).

    Plus with it’s carrying capacity I guess it could be used for an emergancy evac for a wounded soldier.

  58. Saw this last year, and it really freaked me out – but you get accustomed to seeing it after a while, and it’s just an awesome piece of tech.

    I think the natural appearance of its reactions to hazards and interference are a tribute to the guys who designed and built this thing. It looks like a real animal because that’s probably the optimum way to react, so animals have evolved it.

    I wonder how much trained neural networks play a part in the control system, and whether genetically evolved algorithms were used at any point. I’d love to see the detailed design specs on this. I never will, though :

  59. did you hear that noise?

    if I were on that battlefield..
    “Prepare EMP!”

  60. I saw this awhile back and almost wet my pants. Freaked the ****out of me.

  61. Astro_logic

    Wow, that’s not creepy at all… But I must admit I can how it would be useful… If only they could make it less life-like. But I suppose that would kind of defeat the purpose…

  62. Todd W.


    Darn it! You beat me to mentioning that it wouldn’t require a handler and wouldn’t get startled.

  63. Oh look…it’s a dog that doesn’t poop!

    Yes, but it runs on gasoline so it farts a lot.

  64. Technically, the guy did a front kick, although it was more of a push than an actual kick. I’m not saying that “broad kick” is wrong, only that this is the first time I have heard that term used to describe the “kick” in the video. I would call it a push instead of a kick because the the application of force was fairly slow. The force on impact is derived by F = change in momentum / change in time, and the momentum was not suddenly changed by the foot hitting the robot. This force of impact, as opposed to the force exerted by the guy’s muscles to move the robot, is why I would call it a push. It’s also a sloppy, which moves it further into push territory. (However, we do use push kicks for all kinds of reasons in sparring, and most people that get hit by them would just call them a kick.) I’m still curious to know where Phil got “broad kick” from.

  65. Ty

    In about 10 years I would bet they could make a really cool device that could be used by people that are currently confined to wheelchairs (I say 10 years b/c dang, nobody is going to get up on that thing right now- it needs to be smaller, quieter, and probably much safer).

    When Kamen came out with his mobility bot (the guy that made the Segway) wheel chair bound people literally started crying when they engaged it to “stand up”. It’s a really big deal for somebody in a wheel chair to rise up to eye-level.

    With a much improved version of something like this they could climb up stairs, go out in rough terrain, have a sensation of walking. I don’t know, strikes me as something that they would really like. The technology is just amazing.

  66. Matt A

    “Send it to Mars with a Camera”? No, no, no: Send it to Mars with Val Kilmer. And hope it doesn’t run amok and turn a short bad film into a longer bad film.

  67. flynjack

    Hmmm They’re filming Terminator 4 here and I cant help but think this is only the beginning. But still not much without real AI to run it. I have to agree with you Phil its a bit unnerving though.

  68. Viewer 3

    Too lazy to read all the posts, so I may or may not be the first to throw in the Blade Runner reference. If you think about how the reactions to the kick and the ice are freakishly similar to the real thing, it’s a little easier to imagine a future with cybernetic animals (electric sheep even). If you watch the video with just the right perspective and suspension of disbelief, seeing the kick and the reaction could even evoke a very slight emotional response that you’d normally associate with seeing someone kick an actual animal, or even a wounded one since the movement of the robot would be more fitting of a somewhat wounded dog.

    Pretty scary when you think about it. Watching the movie and reading the book doesn’t really do the concept justice- the concept of having to “retire” human replicants by killing them, and supposedly having it be easy on the conscience, just like seeing a perfect animal replica robot being killed or harmed.

  69. bjn

    I have to agree, this is really creepy. I suppose we should be grateful for the noisy 2-cycle engine that powers the thing in the field. No sneaking up on you from behind…yet.

  70. WithoutSol

    This is incredible. Whats interesting though is all the comments about its creepiness. I felt uneasy watching this thing, and I can’t rationalize that.

    It would be interesting to gauge the psychological effects of these type of autonomous robots as they become more numerous. Perhaps the creepy factor will be a hurdle to over come when marketing house-hold walking robots and things of that sort. Will they need to be made “cute” to be acceptable, sacrificing design for looks (like some vehicles)?

    Asimo is just cool… this is cool AND creepy.

  71. RobertMadewell

    The noise is a gasoline engine, I think. Probably on the order of a weed whacker or some small engine like that. Overall, I think this thing is cool.

  72. Ty

    The video was a bit weird to see at first. No doubt. I had, like many of you, kind of a weird psychological response to it.

    But this isn’t “creepy”! This is science! DARPA is funding this to obviously help our soldiers out. Good for them. But, like many of their projects, it has the potential to lead to advances that help lots of other people out. And by “other people” I still mean people, in this case, that are confined to basic wheel chairs.

    Is it more creepy than a cochlear implant? Imagine you’re a parent of a deaf child, and the doctor says to you “I think I can make your child have hearing again, but I need to drill into a small part of the skull, and some soft tissue around the ear, and implant some electronic parts”. Sounds cyborg but it works and it’s great.

    The science behind what they are doing with people that from suffer from macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa is equally incredible.

    Someday (maybe sooner than we think- how much electric power could you get from a fuel cell powered by a half sized scuba bottle of hydrogen?- no, seriously, I have no idea on the maths on that!) -there is going to be a kid that suffers from Spina Bifida that is going to be able to “walk” up stairs with a device like this, “walk” (again, I don’t know, but from what I have read that tactile sensation of balance that we take for granted is just really important to them) outside on the grass with his family, and be able to stand upright and talk to people eye to eye. Yeah people will think it’s creepy for the first 5 times they see it, and then they’ll just be amazed. This isn’t LaLa land thinking. The video alone proves that (although, granted, it’s probably their “greatest hits” of success- but they’ll get there eventually).

    Science is just awesome and this is why I really like it and hope we continue to fund it. Phil, darn I like this blog and I hope we can all support stuff like this.

  73. WithoutSol


    In my opinion the integration of technology such as this into society is inevitable, especially in arena that help the physically challenged. Once autonomous robots become more common its less likely that people will “creep out” ( for lack of a better term) when they see them in action. I am thinking about the first commercial implementation of these machines, but realistically I think people could just swallow that feeling once they realize the machine’s usefulness.

    TY, you make good points. And yes it is more creepy than a cochlear implant… they don’t just crawl about with oddly jointed legs, lol. Cochlear implants are not odd at all, though I guess I can see the parallel.

  74. Dude. That made me want to break all sorts of language rules in this comment.

    After a while all I could think of was that two deer had formed their own Mummenschanz troop.

    Now, if they can just get them to tap-dance…

  75. Andy

    Your right Phil that was incredibly cool, but also creepy. It’s movement was so animal like it was weird. And when it was kicked and slipping on the ice…WOW! It behaved so instinctively that it was crazy watch.

  76. Pretty spiffy!

    You know, I’ve never understood the whole “the robots will destroy us!” business. I mean, why would they? Why would we program them to do so? It seems as likely as my DVR destroying me (though it’s already done a number on my social life, so, hmmm…).

  77. Beelzebud

    Wow, I see what you mean about it being freaky. I’m not sure why, but it really creeps me out.

    Maybe it’s from playing too much Half Life 2 and being hunted down by the v2.0 of this thing.

  78. themadlolscientist

    YOICKS! K9 has been assimilated by the Borg!

  79. anonymous

    I can’t look at that without thinking that it’s got two rear ends.

  80. CR

    Maybe if it had a ‘head,’ just for aesthetics, it wouldn’t be so creepy to so many people.

    On a different forum, I saw this video a couple months ago, and made the comment about how it would make a great rescue tool, if it didn’t scare it’s intended rescuee to death!
    I can just picture it…
    Lost hiker, pinned under a fallen tree by a rocky riverbed in the middle of nowhere: “What? Hey, that sounds like a snowmobile, or a four-wheeler or… well, something. Rescuers! I’m saved! HEY! I’m over here, by the fallen tree! Over here!” Lost hiker gets a good look at this large, headless THING purposfully ambling its way over rough terrain directly toward him: “AAAUGH! HELP! SOMEBODY HELP ME! KEEP IT AWAY!!!”

  81. zeb

    OH MY FREAKING GOD!!!! (whom I don’t believe in)…

    That someone has been able to build something with such complex adaptive mechanisms, that it still works even though lots of random, unpredictable stuff it happening (the guy just walks up and shoves it with his foot for crissake!) it’s completely unbelievable.

    See Marshall Brain’s Robotic Nation to see where this is likely going.

  82. madge

    I too saew this a while back and was REALLY impressed. The way that thing reacts to destabilising is awesome!

  83. Ad Hominid

    Any other old-timers remember Magnus Robot-Fighter? This was popular enough during its heyday to rate a Mad Magazine parody, Magnut, Robot-Biter.

  84. Danniel B.

    I think looking at the head it is designed to be able to walk both ways without turning around, so to give it a “head” they would need to put two on, and that’ll be even creepier.

  85. Darrin

    How to make it even more awesome:
    1) Put cow skulls on each end
    2) Put some horrible, warbling death sound on it.
    3) Give it a decaying animal exterior
    4) Turn it loose and watch people crap themselves.

    I would pay to see that.

    I, for one, welcome our new benefactors…

  86. John Phillips, FCD

    I don’t get the creepy bit I just think very very cool.

  87. American Voyager

    Those giant bug legs flipped me out. Reminds me of those awful giant insect movies they used to make. Still, it is an amazing feat. Thank God it made that loud noise. If it were quiet like a real insect, I would really have flipped out. I don’t know. Some of the other posters are right. I see military usess and potential for planetary exploration. Armor them and send them to Mars, Venus, Eurpoa, and anywhere else. But not here. Not with those legs!! Ugh!

  88. Meeee


    “It would be interesting to gauge the psychological effects of these type of autonomous robots as they become more numerous. Perhaps the creepy factor will be a hurdle to over come when marketing house-hold walking robots and things of that sort. Will they need to be made ‚Äúcute‚ÄĚ to be acceptable, sacrificing design for looks (like some vehicles)?”

    Maybe it’s some new version of the “Uncanny Valley” thing (I’m not going to post a link because it takes forever to get moderated, just search for it on wikipedia), only instead of human likeness in terms of looks, it’s realistic movement/behaviour.

    Definitely something interesting to look into.

  89. I’ve seen this thing in action. The movie is pretty cool, but up close and personal this thing just blows your mind!

  90. Joneil

    What’s the matter with all you guys? Cannot figure it out?

    It’s the first Cylon!
    :) :) :)

  91. Shame on you, Phil! Perpetuating the flagantly anti-technology Frankenstein Myth…

    I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.

  92. MarkH

    I’m wiatin for the ones that you can ride in or pilot. Slap a few rocket packs on and maybe a machine gun or laser or two…. yeeeehaaaaa!

    I Want my Battlemaster

  93. I’ve just realised… that engine makes a noise just like Orac (from Blake’s 7)…

  94. Gustav Nyström

    I, too, was extremely creeped-out at first by this robot, but when that guy push-kicked it in the side my
    emotional response was not unlike pity.

    On the topic of utilitarian applications for the robot; uses as an military-mule or wheelchair-replacement, has already been mentioned. I was thinking it probably could be put to good use in disaster areas, and not just battlefields, to transport supplies, medicin and wounded people. But, as it has already been mentioned, they would have to work on the robots image. A scary-sounding killer-machine won’t just cut it as a paramedic.

  95. This is pretty freaky.

  96. Chip

    Many have welcomed the robot overlords but, as the ancient Greeks warned, one should be careful what one wishes for – (you may get it.) Behold: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8WHQI5iKYfM&feature=related

  97. Ted Judah

    Interesting look at the robots’ predecessor:

  98. Ze Kraggash

    Wow, this seems to be the an early version of Rincewind’s “Luggage” from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. Now they just have to make the inside bigger than the outside…

  99. Dear future robot overlords, please be kind and merciful masters to our poor ape race. Also, please do not eviscerate us and use our cyborg husks to build pandimensional skyscrapers.

  100. What we need to realize is that this is the Model A. A new Pandora’s box has been opened on the world. With armies all over the world engaged in scaling down their forces for the next world conflict, and reorganizing in an attempt to maximize cost versus effectiveness, an explosion of battlefield robotics is undoubtedly close at hand.

    Envision larger, armored up, heavily armed, and much more advanced, versions of Big Dog, and I believe creepiness will give way to fear.

    Think of it. Battalions of soldiers that never tire, do not hunger or thirst, and feel no pain or remorse…that just be the most daunting development since the atomic bomb; look at the myriad complexities its development and use created. Pandora’s box, indeed.


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