Robot Ninjas: Lockheed Martin Teaches Bots to Hide, Seek

For all you know, they might be stalking you right now.


Sometimes technological progress is measured by subtraction, rather than addition. As robots become more sophisticated, one major milestone ahead is developing a robot that knows when it should subtract itself from a situation–a robot that knows, in other words, how to hide.

New Scientist reports on developments at Lockheed Martin, whose Advanced Technology Laboratories at Cherry Hill, NJ, are making advances in the field of “covert robotics.” While we have task-oriented robots–robots that can dance, that can smile, that can assist in surgery–Lockheed Martin’s ninja robots are more about being situationally aware. They have laser scanners to map their surroundings in 3-D, and they have robotic ears to hear footsteps, and even figure out which direction they’re moving in. The robot, currently in prototype, can hide from sentries in known locations, strive to avoid sentries in unknown locations, avoid situations from which it can’t escape, and avoid well-lit areas, according to lead engineer Brian Satterfield.

The robot isn’t yet intelligent enough to have a full “theory of mind,” or any deep sort of notion of another person’s subjectivity. But it might get there in the future. “There are very few fundamental limits that would prevent robots from eventually conducting extended covert missions and evading detection by humans,” Satterfield told New Scientist. There’s considerable demand for this sort of robot; the U.S. Army announced its interest in a hiding robot for “persistent surveillance.”

Lockheed Martin aren’t the only ones in the this game. TiaLinx has a new surveillance robot that can scan across walls made of concrete, and detect human breathing. By sensing what the company called “biorhythmic patterns,” it can even detect people who are standing perfectly still, CNet reported last month.

The new prototypes add fodder to the ongoing debate of whether it’s a good or bad thing to teach robots to deceive.

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[Image: Flickr user kennymatic]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.