THE HUMANOID ROBOT, built like a linebacker with an oversized head, tiptoes on two feet through the dirt. It’s free of any wires. It’s unleashed but it’s now wavering. It starts veering right, tilting more and more, tilting and tilting, like the town drunkard, until the poor thing tips over and face-plants. It lies there in a cloud of dust, kicks its feet up a bit, arches its back, and gives in to defeat.
You may have seen these bipedal robots tumbling all over the Internet this week. They were all part of a competition in Pomona, California put on by Darpa, the far-out research wing of the Pentagon. After the Fukushima disaster in 2011, Darpa set out to encourage the development of robots that can assist in similar catastrophes: machines capable of working where humans dare not go. And so the yearly Darpa Robotics Challenge was born.