Nexi, AlphaDog: Robots sniff Martian air for methane and carry Marines' equipment.

The Week's Best Robot Videos: A Shifty Bot You Can't Trust

The Week's Best Robot Videos: A Shifty Bot You Can't Trust

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Sept. 14 2012 11:00 AM

The Week's Best Robot Videos: A Shifty Bot You Can't Trust

Nexi the robot

Still from YouTube.

Every Friday, Future Tense rounds up the best robot videos of the week. Seen a great robot video? Tweet it to @FutureTenseNow, or email us. 

This week, Canada tests a Mars rover, a DARPA dog softens its bark, and a social robot can’t be trusted.


The (Un)Trustworthy Bot
Usually when we talk about whether a technology is trustworthy, we’re talking about how reliable or secure it is. But Nexi, the robot in this video, can exhibit body language that is intended to make people suspicious. Developed by MIT’s Cynthia Breazeal, Nexi builds on prior research about body language and trustworthiness. Studies from MIT, Northeastern University, and Cornell University identified four actions that commonly make people suspicious of others: leaning away, crossing one’s arms, clasping one’s hands together, and touching one’s face. The robot was designed to mimic these four actions, and researchers used it in one-on-one conversations with participants in the study. A human provided Nexi’s voice to keep the conversation natural, and another controlled the bot’s motions. The study reports that when people unknowingly witnessed certain nonverbal cues, they acted as though the robot couldn’t be trusted. Read more about the study at the New York Times, and then try not to play psychologist every time you see people touching their faces.

The (Canadian) Mars Rover
One of the Red Planet’s many mysteries is why it has so much methane in its atmosphere. NASA’s Curiosity Rover recently “sniffed” the Martian air and is now parsing its ingredients, and a team at the University of Toronto is already working on a new robot to seek out whatever is releasing the relatively short-lived gas into the air. This video shows a test of the rover’s autonomous methane-hunting skills:  It bounces lasers off reflective surfaces to find the source of the gas. An on-board spectrometer uses light to detect different elements in the air, so even if the rover doesn’t come across some well-placed mirrors on Mars, it can analyze rays from the sun to shed light on this mystery. (Fair warning: The only audio in this clip is Ace of Base’s “The Sign.”)


The Quiet Dog Bot
You’ve probably seen this DARPA pet project before, and it might not look much different. But turn up the volume, and whoa, what an improvement. The AlphaDog robot built by Boston Dynamics is designed to help Marines carry heavy equipment over long distances—and not sounding like a lawnmower certainly makes it easier to sneak around the woods. AlphaDog could quickly become a foot soldier’s best friend: It can carry up to 400 pounds and walk continuously for 20 miles.  This latest version even plays follow the leader. According to Wired’s Danger Room, Marines can control the bot with a 10-pound touchscreen device, either steering it directly or telling it to follow closely behind a traveling group. The next step for developers is to let it autonomously travel from one pre-specified point to the next. (And if you’re tired of seeing AlphaDog trek through the woods in video after video, try watching it with a little ‘30s flair.)

The Tubular Bot
There’s something both unsettling and mesmerizing about soft, air-powered robots, and in this case it’s probably the almost-but-not-quite organic motion of the silicone tentacle. Though it might look something like a digestive tract, the robot seen here has delicate motions that allow it to grasp objects like papers and flowers, which a standard robotic hand might crush. Chambers inside the tentacle are filled with air to control its movement, and the materials to craft a tentacle cost less than $10. A team at Harvard led by George Whitesides created the device, which could be paired with attachable devices like video cameras and suction cups, or even with needles to help deliver fluids.

Via Discover.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Adam Sneed is a researcher for Future Tense at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @atsneed.