A humanoid robot with fee and treads bends forward while opening a door

CHIMP, or the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform, approaches the door, the first of eight tasks it must complete during the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge (DRC). Photo Courtesy: U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released | Flickr Creative Commons

If your nightmares include cowering under a rubble while the robot overlords exterminate inferior humans you’re not alone. You fear is shared by Professor Steven Hawking, the notable theoretical physicist. “Once humans develop artificial intelligence (AI), it would take off on its own and re-design itself at an ever-increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete,” he said in an interview with ABC News 24, Australia. Apple founder Steve Wozniak and Elon Musk have also expressed concern about AI.

Research on building better—if not good—robots is being conducted by teams of students and scientists on campuses around the world. To test and improve their work they compete regularly in the DARPA Robotics Challenge. DARPA, The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is tasked with developing new technologies for military use. You might have heard of their work—self-driving cars, GPS, and the Internet.

During the challenge each competing human/robot team must finish an obstacle course featuring 8 complex tasks. The robots are “driven” by humans using a remote control. These robots have been designed to cope with a disaster scenario—similar to the nuclear plant meltdown in Fukishima, Japan.

The competition begins with each robot driving a vehicle to the course starting point and getting out of the vehicle without falling. The next task includes opening a door and moving through the opening. Then the robot must turn a valve. Remember, during a real disaster rescue robots will have to turn valves off to stop steaming clouds of radioactive vapor from spreading.

The following task requires each robot to cut a hole in a wall using a cutting tool. The team must then negotiate a “surprise” task—testing the ability of the engineers and programmers to cope with an unexpected event—as the robot would have to in a real-life crisis. Finally, the robot must walk over a rubble-strewn area and climb stairs without falling.

Despite often glacially slow movements the robots have lots of fans—thousands of passionate spectators filled the venue’s viewing stand during the competition. When a robot fell the crowd moaned in sympathy. When one successfully navigated a rubble-strewn path they cheered.

DRC-Hubo, from South Korea, won the 2015 Challenge and the $2 million prize. But the crowd favorite was Chimp. He has four legs as well as tank-like tracks to help him travel over rubble or climb steep areas. During the competition Chimp fell over and managed to get up without help. He was the only robot able to accomplish that task in a competition with 24 teams. It makes him seem almost human.

About 

Martin Ackerman is a freelance writer and current editor originally from Staten Island, NY. His university schooling focused on English education and Japanese. He has a (not so secret) passion for art history and political science. When he isn't writing or editing you can find him at sci-tech conventions, building the latest LEGO city or pampering his cat, Tea. You can follow him on Twitter @MarMackerman.