The United States Department of Defense is one of the primary driving forces behind advancing applied technology, as is seen in the video above. Boston Dynamics is a robotic research firm which develops applications for DARPA and other DoD agencies. In this case, Boston Dynamics has developed a cyber-age pack mule. The particular video above displays “BigDog,” a “rough-terrain robot that walks, runs, climbs, and carries heavy loads” (Boston Dynamics). According to Boston Dynamics, BigDog is capable of carrying loads as heavy as 340 pounds, which in personal experience, is equivalent to the logistical and tactical load of a fire-team of Marines in the field.1
This video posted on Youtube by Boston Dynamics displays many of the capabilities of BigDog, including those quoted on Boston Dynamics’ website. In addition, based on informal discussion with others, I have found that BigDog displays a “creepy” or “uncanny” resemblance to the organic and the animal, especially during the sequence in which the robot is tested on ice (at about 1:25). The implications of having such organic behavior in the context of working within a human team are powerful. Through the multi-faceted context of the robot’s name, its organic behaviors, and its important role in a small team environment, it would not be unexpected for the human small-team members to become attached to individual units of BigDog. The purpose of BigDog, of course, is to allow those small-team members to become a more effective fighting unit, and by allowing them the simple unburdening of mass, BigDog enables just that. The hardware itself enables the human team to concentrate on basic tactical requirements, mission goals, and also allows for a longer-range, faster-moving, less-resupplied fire team. While the noise generated by BigDog would prevent participation in behind-the-lines action usually seen by special forces units, the robot would still prove useful in a tactical support role. BigDog enables another large tactical advantage to Soldiers and Marines in the combat environment; it enables a more efficient application of power by the United States government.
Although the context of this video is the military application of BigDog, there are other uses to which such a robot may be put. For example, by enhancing the ability of humans to endure long-range foot travel, technology such as BigDog could quickly be put to use in hiking, backwoods search-and-rescue, and other activities where an autonomous, rough-terrain companion would be useful. With few modifications, the robot would also prove useful for exploration and outposts on other terrestrial bodies in the solar system, from the moon to Mars. In another video posted by Boston Dynamics, the company implies the weaponization of BigDog. Although this video depicts BigDog with a set of longhorns (as on the front of a Cadillac), the implications are clear. If a small bomb-disposal robot can carry a shotgun, then a system with BigDog’s capabilities could easily carry a heavy machine gun and plenty of ammunition. A third video displays BigDog’s other capability to autonomously follow a human walking through rough terrain. On Boston Dynamics’ website, the ability to navigate through GPS and terrain-feature-sensors is mentioned, and these technologies further enhance the hardware capabilities of BigDog.
Although the BigDog robot, and others developed by Boston Dynamics, displays large advances in hardware capabilities, the software development still does not approach the intelligence commonly displayed in dystopian science fiction such as the Terminator and The Matrix. One of the primary sources of disquiet for audiences of those fictions is the organic behavior of the robots portrayed, and BigDog certainly approaches those representations; however, the robot lacks the conscientious intelligence also portrayed in popular culture. Because of this shortcoming, although the video may be disturbing by way of BigDog’s organic movement behavior, the threat posed by such technology is still limited to the decisions humans make about how to use it.
1. A Marine fire team consists of between four and six individuals. Each person carries a weapon and ammunition, as well as food and equipment needed for their mission. Depending on the objectives and length of a mission, that load can approach 120 pounds each.