This is the DARPA Pet-Proto Robot (a predecessor to the Atlas model) showing some pretty cool initial operating capabilities for navigating around obstacles.
- Climbing over a wall
- Straddling a pit
- Going up a staircase
- Walking a plank
These things may seem simple to you and I, but for these robots, we are talking about their autonomously sensing what's around them, identifying and evaluating alternatives to overcome them, deciding on what to actually do, and then successfully executing on it.
Not bad for a machine (even if we are spoiled by the the great science fiction writers and special effects of Hollywood)!
We will be seeing a lot more progress in this area in the 27 months in response to the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), where robots are being looked to "execute complex tasks" for "humanitarian, disaster relief, and related activities" in potentially "dangerous and degraded, and human-engineered" environments.
I'd say only another 15-20 more years and the robots will walking among us--but are we prepared for the significant shift about to occur.
Think about it--these robots will be able to do a lot more of the physical work (construction, manufacturing, service, care-taking, even warfighting, and more), and while we will benefit from the help, jobs are going to continue to get a lot tougher to find if you are not in fields such as engineering, science, technology, design, and so on.
This is going to lead to continued, significant social, educational, and economic disruptions.
What is now a robotics challenge to meet certain performance benchmarks, may in the future become a human challenge to shift from a human-dominated world to one which is instead shared or commingled with machines.
This means that we need to define the boundaries between man and machine--will we be working and playing side-by-side, how about loving or fighting each other, and is there the possibility that the machine will some day transcend the inventor altogether.
I believe that we need significant more study and research into how robotics are going to transform the way we live, work, and interact, and how humanity will adapt and survive this new monumental opportunity, but also looming threat.
What is just an obstacle to overcome in a simulation chamber may one day become an urban battlefield where humans are not necessarily the clear winners.
While I love robotics and where it can take us, this cannot be a field limited to the study of hardware and software alone.