Won't You (Cheaply) Help DARPA Gear Up for the Coming Robopocalypse?

robot cash

Back in July the government identified robots as one of the R&D priorities for the 2012 budget (about a decade behind the rest of us). Now there's a research funding round to aid small business robotic's efforts, to build robot gear DARPA can't manage.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy was behind July's thinking that "Robotics is an important technology because of its potential to advance national needs such as homeland security, defense, medicine, healthcare, space exploration," and a whole list of other purposes. The OSTP thinks it's also a tech at "a tipping point in terms of its usefulness and versatility," thanks to innovations in programming, hardware, and computer vision.

Now the White House has announced that five federal agencies have banded together to create a fund to spur "small business research." Companies can apply for cash to aid work on "robot-assisted rehabilitation, robotics for drug discovery, and robots that can disarm explosive devices." This last one is particularly revealing, given how much the U.S. armed forces are relying on robotics in the current expeditionary missions, and how much improvised explosive weapons are inflicted disaster in Afghanistan and Iraq (with a side-order of worries about similar terrorist threats at home).

DARPA, of course, sets out guidelines about the kind of robots its funds: They must have "novel actuators that exceed the safety and efficacy of human muscle," which is a no-brainer--why would anyone build a defense bot that is weaker than a person? The actuators must be safe, extremely powerful, and robust--also no-brainers. They must also have designs that "do not rely on exotic or expensive materials or processes" and have potential for "low-cost manufacturing."

And here's the truth behind all this, hinted at by BotJunkie's post on the news. Official government funding on robotics and general science and tech for decades, including billions of unaccountable "black project" cash, hasn't developed robotics swiftly enough to meet modern requirements. There's a ton of clever work in the bag, certainly, but it's either too expensive or too unreliable to quickly turn into workable robots that can help the U.S.'s war efforts as well as engineering tasks back home. So the government has opened the cash pool to small businesses, who may come up with novel ideas, are potentially more agile in turning ideas into workable products, and who lack the institutionalized corruption that seems to plague official big-budget defense funds.

We're also going to chide the OSTP for lack of balls in following through what could've been appealing trick: The fund is called "Robotics Technology Development and Deployment" not "Robotics Research, Development and Deployment" (which works since "technology" is implicit in "robotics"). Hence its official acronym is RTD2, rather than ....

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11 Comments

  • Goatie

    Remember, the Stealth bomber "didn't exist" until it finally did in 1989 when the military finally unveiled it to the public. We had the thing for nearly 20 years before we "knew" it...and now we're supposed to believe that this is the best they've got? You can bet that 'ol "Short Circuit" here represents 20-year old technology and that what they're actually working on or perhaps even have right under our collective noses is the real danger. Robots with military armaments and who are unfeeling, fearless and deadly.

  • Gene T

    To St. Clair, I respectfully disagree with your commentary regarding robots being outlaw'd in the marketplace. What I do see happening is menial work fast vanishing due to the introduction of robotics & the new species of robosapiens or androids if you prefer. What will drive this trend is pure & simple economics - keep something in mind about technology. It's use in western society is geared towards greater efficiency, hence greater productivity. You can no more stop this trend toward mobile automation then you can advances in GPS, voice recognition & fully 3D displays as well as other technologies that will come to the fore. The idea of these technologies is to release us as a people from the daily toil & drudgery of hard & menial labor. If we are to ever again to become a manufacturing power house that can compete with the likes of China it will come about only that day when there is no human element involved in the manufacturing process period - after all labor costs money. In regards to the military it's man over machine & machine will win time & time again. An android will save a lot of money on ammunition as it will fire it's weapon only once to register a kill. Androids don't need to be fed or housed & no need for expensive medical care. The future soldier will instead be more like a green beret with very specialized technical training & skills. Rather then be stuck doing hard, dangerous & repetitive manual labor man will free to pursue & explore his or her creative abilities to the full...

  • Brad Arnold

    In my opinion, the most promising area is AI, where software exceeds the human mind. The Singularity is coming! By the way, what about a robot that exceeds the human body?

  • Nate O'Shaughnessey

    AI is a vague goal in itself. Can you give us a clear definition?
    exceeds the human body is also vague; in what ways?

  • John St.Clair

    i really don't see robots becoming part of our society for long. The people who do menial work now have the majority population and they will quickly outlaw robots so they can continue working. Just as the Russians put sugar in the gasoline tanks of the Communists and brought their society to a grinding halt, these people, who will have to maintain the robots, will also sabotage them. A screw loose here, a faulty gear there and a burned out motor or battery will be all that is needed. I think the military wants to use robots in battle in a similar manner to the drone aircraft. Soldiers will become robot controllers. It is really unnecessary to kill enemy soldier because, as seen with the alien technology, they can pull the plasma ball out of the Dan Tien and paralyze the energy soldier. Also, because we are hybrid physical/energy beings, killing the enemy soldier converts him into a energy being who has much more capability of possessing our soldiers and leaders, doing remote viewing for gathering intelligence, and working with demonic beings to defeat us.

  • Nate O'Shaughnessey

    I often have a hard time being able to tell if posts like this are serious or an elaborate, lengthy satire.

  • John St.Clair

    The Pleiadian Federation, about 440 light years from earth, has banned robots from their society. The reason is that they take jobs away from their citizens. The only intelligent robot they have is called an "Employee" who has this unique high-tech look with large eyes that can see into other hyperspace co-dimensions. The purpose of the Employee is to accompany the political and military leaders in order to spot attacks from co-dimensions. Because this robot is not a citizen of the Federation, it is not subject to their laws of non-interference (prime directive), and therefore can work on other planets. A sketch of the Employee can be seen in one of the books sold on earthfiles.com.

  • A. Shiraz

    Why are you spreading fear ? Why are you attacking an important institution of our government? Aren't you on the same side as us (human beings). Automation and robotics is necessary so people can have spare time to make love ! Stop the fear mongering Mary Shelley!

  • Nate O'Shaughnessey

    I agree.
    robots aren't any more evil than those using them.
    I have my concerns about evil within the governemnt and society, but robotics are really arbitrary.