Scientists have collaborated to build a robot that could adapt to a broken leg and learn to keep walking. The robot was built by Antoine Cully and Jean-Baptiste Mouret of Paris’s Sorbonne and Jeff Clune of the University of Wyoming, whose names will echo the hall of history as some of the many fathers of the Terminator. Possibly.
The scientists’ aim was to create a more robust, adaptive and autonomous robot. Adaptive robotics are said to be the cutting edge of the field. Robots, generally, are not particularly versatile machines – they simply perform a very specific task. The challenge is building learning machines that can respond to even chaotic and unstructured environments.
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To begin bearing that Herculean task, they drew inspiration from the animal kingdom. Animals generally learn quickly if they lose function of a limb. How scientists programmed the robot to overcome a broken leg was simply trial and error: discover which leg was broken and figure out the most efficient way to keep going. Indeed, efficiency was the crux of the problem for robots because movement was extremely inefficient – to the point that any loss of limb was incapacitating.
Meanwhile, other scientists have made advances towards making the Terminator a reality. Boston Dynamics, with US military funding, created Big Dog, which can navigate all kinds of difficult terrain (as well as throw bricks). Meanwhile, BAE Systems is researching “self-healing” techniques for robots. It’s still conceptual, but they postulate they could have robots releasing drones that can repair damaged jets mid-flight or on-board 3D printers to create new parts. Also, University of Illinois engineers have developed a plastic that can repair itself.
If one were to put all this tech together into a single object then we indeed might have our fictions turn into reality. The problem with that, of course, is that canons crossing never go well. Indeed, what if in our world, the first Cylon rebellion was fought by an army of Terminators? Battlestar Galactica would not have even existed. Scientists, please think this through!