A pebble that’s thrown and distracts guards is cinematic cliche, a convenient plot point turned trope and self parody. How could so much of human conflict come down to unaided ears, abundant pebbles, and perfectly choreographed movements? A thrown stick that starts walking off on its own, however, would have enough novelty to move through all the stages of disbelief and right into that perfect spot of “maybe this needs to be investigated.”
Hypotheticals aside, what is the military utility of a 3D printed set of parts, molded to fit a handful of sticks, and then tossed into combat? Or is such a notion pure fantasia?
The answer, as best I’ve been able to figure out, is more than zero. Robots, machines animated to human purpose and built to human end, are limited only in the shapes humans can imagine and fashion for them. The ready availability of weird robots promises to explore battlefields in ways previously unanticipated.
I’m Kelsey D. Atherton, reporting from Socorro, New Mexico, and this is the fourth installment of Tomorrow Wars.
The aforementioned stick robot is a biomimetic novelty produced by researchers at the University of Tokyo’s Information Somatics Laboratory, and is in no way designed for military use. But the process by which it was designed, from scanning raw material to coding movement around a found-object skeleton to fielding it in real life, could lead to machines that use new forms and fill new roles.
Robots in fiction have to at least appear plausible, which is part of what makes novel robot forms in real life so unsettling. Freed from narrative constraints, military robotics planners and designers can find forms that match the tasks assigned, and create machines as bewildering as they are useful. Any vision of robot-filled battlefields that sticks to the tired forms of the mechanized armies of the early 20th century is already an obsolete vision.
This week, we’re sticking with robots, even when the robots are sticks. Let’s get weird with it.