Massively multiplayer Pong

Cats in the henhouse

Gas-powered robotic mule can’t be kicked over

Mules are the original load-hefting technology; they’re robust, ornery, and able to traverse otherwise-impassible ground. So a company called Boston Dynamics is building a robot mule — with specs straight outta Mad Max: It’s gas-powered, moves 3.3 mph, and can carry a 120-pound load up a 35-degree slope. From their online description:

BigDog is the alpha male of the Boston Dynamics family of robots. It is a quadruped robot that walks, runs, and climbs on rough terrain and carries heavy loads. BigDog is powered by a gasoline engine that drives a hydraulic actuation system. BigDog’s legs are articulated like an animal’s, and have compliant elements that absorb shock and recycle energy from one step to the next. BigDog is the size of a large dog or small mule, measuring 1 meter long, 0.7 meters tall and 75 kg weight.

BigDog has an on-board computer that controls locomotion, servos the legs and handles a wide variety of sensors. BigDog’s control system manages the dynamics of its behavior to keep it balanced, steer, navigate, and regulate energetics as conditions vary. Sensors for locomotion include joint position, joint force, ground contact, ground load, a laser gyroscope, and a stereo vision system. Other sensors focus on the internal state of BigDog, monitoring the hydraulic pressure, oil temperature, engine temperature, rpm, battery charge and others.

Best of all is the mule’s stability: It cannot be kicked over. In this rather mind-blowing demonstration video, the scientists give the mule a powerful kick, but it doesn’t topple — it just staggers off to the side. Seriously, watch this video; the robot is so eerily lifelike that my wife implored me to “turn it off because it’s freaking me out.” I actually think its uncannyness derives less from the robot’s ambling movement than from the fact that it has no head, which makes it looks like some minor Quake demon, one of those low-level grunts that come at you in 500-phalanx packs and you just sort of blow ‘em away with a shotgun.

(Thanks to Chris Foley for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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