BigDog Robot, Black Dog Myth
All gangly limbs and uncanny irresistable force, Boston Dynamics’ BigDog is an image from science fiction thrown onto the YouTube screen. The DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) funded project has built a demo of a mechanical pack mule that can carry loads across environments where wheels fear to roll. When I first saw this clip in 2008 I had to reassess my ideas about how robots looked and what they could do.
BigDog’s design is motivated by biomimetics — invoking biological features in designing mechanical systems. The language describing BigDog’s components borrows from biology: proprioception (bodily awareness), exteroception (sensing surroundings) and homeostasis (maintaining bodily integrity). Engineering has drawn from biology for a long time. The influential post-war interdisciplinary field of cybernetics, the science of communication and control, developed many theories of interaction by observing living systems. For example Von Neumann’s (1958) book The Computer and the Brain makes constant reference to living systems in proposing computer design (see Hayles 1999).
In invoking particular biological precedents, Boston Dynamics inadvertently called up a pack of cultural collective memories around untamed and mistreated dogs: fairy tales about wolves, were-wolves in horror films, mythical archetypes of wild and mutant creatures. Layer upon these the menace of the military industrial complex. The video itself is uncanny and contronting: as you watch the flailing legs they flip from pack robot to tortured humans with their heads thrust together.
BigDog and the project’s research themes
Expression: sensors prioritise keeping upright and moving: joint position, ground contact, laser gyroscope and stereo vision. The relationship to people and environment represented in the video emphasises the capacity to take abuse: being kicked, thrown onto ice. Another feature of the video is the relentless and terrifying noise of the two-stroke go-kart motor.
Location: BigDog is shown both tethered and kicked in the lab, like some movie monster, and sent to fend for itself in cold, slippery and hostile environments. At the same time, this is a companion robot
Institutionalisation: BigDog is safely kennelled in the R&D infrastructure of the US Military. The impact of the video (over 3 million views) adds some level of ambivalent popular recognition.