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The four-legged robot of my paranoid fantasies

John Colson

The curveballs come at you when you least expect them.

This week, as I walked through the central part of The Aspen Times building, on my way to the coffee machine or some other mundane place, I was diverted by one of my co-workers with a peremptory, “Colson! C’mere, you’ve gotta see this.”

And that was my introduction to Big Dog, the latest attempt by humanity to conquer the divide between being mere mechanics and becoming gods, with the ability to create life, as shown on a YouTube video clip.



Built by Boston Dynamics, with money from a mysterious entity called the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, it was an engine with legs that could walk, run, jump and, when it stumbled, could catch itself and resume moving forward.

It can go uphill, downhill and can negotiate a patch of ice as well as any of us.




It can carry hundreds of pounds of gear, presumably to take the load off soldiers’ backs, at least conceptually.

Naturally, I was a little stunned ” well, make that flummoxed, stupefied, and just a tad frightened, as I watched this mechanical beast walk up a hill, step through snowbanks, clamber over a pile of cinderblocks, leap over an imaginary obstacle and keep on going. It sounds like a mosquito on steroids, from the small-bore engine and computer at its core, and is about the size of a large dog or a small pony. It looks creepy enough to give a guy bad dreams.

Immediately, my fervid imagination conjured up some terrifying ideas, mostly born out of images and concepts from Hollywood, from such movies as “The Terminator” and “Star Wars,” where mechanical weapons take the form of living beasts, both human and nonhuman.

For instance, if you saw the “Star Wars” movies, you might recall monstrous walking war machines, with legs as tall as mature redwood trees supporting a huge cabin with a cannon where the nose would be. That was the first image to bubble up in my mind.

Then there’s “The Terminator,” in which Arnold Schwarzenegger provides a somewhat campy, bizarrely humorous look at the future by coming back to the past (our present) to kill a certain human being. But the Terminator, played by the guy who’s now the governor of California, is a robot that looks and acts very human, not the first time that theme has cropped up and, as robotics advances, certainly not the last.

Next, a few pertinent questions occurred to me.

The Big Dog undoubtedly runs on gas, or some fuel source that enforces limits on its activities. But what happens when some geek links robotics with advanced genetic engineering, nanotechnology and humanoform construction techniques?

More questions.

For one, does it speak with an Austrian accent? Can it be trained to kick down doors, demand to see identification, fire short bursts from a machine pistol mounted on its back?

Let’s see, Superman had Krypto the Superdog as a companion for a while; is this the Terminator’s new best friend?

Let’s try to stay peaceful for a moment, rather than immediately descending into paranoid fantasies.

Can this little beasty be programmed to do household chores? Can it be outfitted with rotary blades so it can mow lawns? How about dishes? Can the geeks invent a special detergent that won’t corrode the Big Dog’s limbs?

What about child care? Isaac Asimov once wrote a story about a future in which robots’ main function was to watch over the children of humans while the adult humans went about their business. Are we once again proving Asimov to have been prescient?

Or is the Big Dog, as I feared, likely to develop strictly as a killing machine, a mechanized servant of the ruling class and the Army?

It is currently described by its creators as a tank-mule that can carry a lot of weight. Can it be outfitted with everything from flamethrowers to machine guns, cannons and cameras, used against overseas enemies or here at home, to help quell riots and other domestic disturbances that interfere with the ongoing flow of commerce and the enrichment of the privileged few?

Can’t say, but with a name like Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, you can bet the sponsoring agency is not aiming to ease the burdens of domestic life.

I’m a little worried. Are you?

jcolson@aspentimes.com

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