DARPA's New Robot Looks Like the Terminator, or Maybe Cleatus

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 12 2013 12:34 PM

DARPA's New Robot Looks Like the Terminator, or Maybe Cleatus

Boston Dynamics Atlas robot
Boston Dynamics' new Atlas robot has the build of an NFL nose tackle

Screenshot / YouTube

Some are comparing it to the Terminator. To me it’s more reminiscent of Cleatus, the Fox Sports football robot: physically imposing, but—one suspects—not terribly bright.

Be that as it may, Boston Dynamics’ long-awaited next-generation humanoid robot is here. DARPA unveiled the 6-foot-2, 330-pound mechanical beast this week, and it’s looking a good bit more polished than the prototype we showed you last fall—not that that’s saying a whole lot. Here it is in action:

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The engineers at DARPA and Boston Dynamics may lack Steve Jobs’ aesthetic sensibilities, but Atlas extends their long track record of pushing the boundaries of humanoid robots’ physical abilities. Their Cheetah robot can match Usain Bolt’s speed; a version of their Petman robot (actually an early prototype for Atlas) managed to negotiate an obstacle course. Atlas is their most advanced effort yet, with an on-board computer, 28 hydraulic joints, and LIDAR and stereo sensors in its head.

The robot will serve as the shell for the seven teams competing this year in the DARPA Robotics Challenge. The teams will install software brains aimed at allowing Atlas to complete a series of tasks similar to what might be required in disaster-response or emergency-rescue situations. That’s a tall task for robots, which tend to have Hulk-like strength but terrible coordination compared to humans. In the video above, Atlas neatly sidesteps a two-by-four on a treadmill, which is impressive from a technical standpoint, but obviously only a small step toward actually negotiating messy human environments.

You can read more about the DARPA Robotics Challenge here and see some of the contestants’ previous efforts in the video below. May their work be used for good and not evil—or, failing that, may it continue to be pretty much useless in the real world for the foreseeable future.

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

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer. Email him at will.oremus@slate.com or follow him on Twitter.