Robots offer a unique insight into what people want from technology. That makes their progress peculiarly fascinating, says Oliver Morton.
A blue-limbed robot, lifts its right foot to the seventh step of the ladder, its left foot to the eighth, and stops; it sways alarmingly in the strong Florida sea breeze. Of the 17 teams competing in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC), a first-of-its-kind event held at a speedway track near Miami in December 2013, only two others got their robots this high up the ladder. One of those two then took a nasty tumble.
For most of a minute SCHAFT is still, except for a flap on its chest that slowly rises and falls in a breathing motion. Then it springs into action again. Its left knee straightens, its right foot rises, its left knee bends again—not forwards, as a human knee would, but backwards—and in four swift movements it firmly plants both feet on the platform at the top of the ladder.