Colin Anderson / Getty Images
Nearly half of the participants in this study obeyed orders that they really didn't want to obey from a tiny, friendly little robot.
Paramount Pictures Corporation
June 29, 2011 --
In the movie "Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon," Autobots, transforming robots from the planet Cybertron, work alongside humans to battle the Decepticons, a rival group of robots bent on destroying the universe. The latest Transformers installment may just be a work of fiction, but would real-life robots on Earth be up to the task of saving the planet from the threat of an overwhelming destructive force? Of course not, but that doesn't mean they won't get there one day. Until then, we present the next best thing in this slideshow of incredible real-life robots.
Alex Kossett and Nikolaos Papanikolopoulos, U
We begin the slideshow with an actual real-life transforming robot. Although it doesn't tranform into a sentient, humanoid machine, this robot can transform from what appears to be an elaborate motorized rolling pin to a helicopter when the terrain starts to get rough.
Take a look at this flying robot in action here. BLOG: Rolling Robot Transforms into a Helicopter
What's more terrifying than a hungry, fully grown cheetah chasing you down? How about if it were made of metal? Meet CHEETAH, a robot designed by Boston Dynamics for one purpose: to hunt you down like an animal. Once built, this robot will be fast, agile and strong enough to chase down, catch and subdue even the fastest human runners. This robot is one of a line of prototypes known as "terror bots." An appropriate name, especially if you see this guy biting at your heels as you run full speed. BLOG: TERROR BOTS BEING DESIGNED TO HUNT YOU DOWN
If this robot reminds you of Scorponok from the "Transformers" film series, you wouldn't be far off. Designed by researchers at the University of Bielefeld, this advanced walking robot is based on a rather simple creature: an insect. HECTOR, short for Hexapod Cognitive autonomously Operating Robot, has six legs and elastic joints that allow its motions to mimic muscle movement. This construction allows the robot to navigate over uneven terrain. At a little more than three feet long and weighing in at 26 pounds, this robot probably won't be involved in any world domination schemes anytime soon. BLOG: HECTOR THE WALKING ROBOT INSPIRED BY INSECTS
Snake Robot to the Rescue
Cheetahs and insects aren't the only animals inspiring robotics' engineers. Mechanical snakes are also being designed to mimic their mechanical counterparts. Unlike CHEETAH, which is made to hunt you down, this snake robot, created by researchers at Georgia Tech Univeristy, is actually designed to come to the rescue. Their unique body shape allows them to burrow through uneven soil. With this unique feature, emergency responders could deploy these robots after a particularly devastating natural disaster, such as an earthquake, when victims are buried and out of reach. BLOG: SNAKE-LIKE ROBOT SWIMS TO THE RESCUE
Robots may not yet be able to conquer the Earth, but what about the wide world of sports? They're already playing soccer and tossing baseballs. Now it looks like they're competing in marathons. (Well, robot marathons anyway.) Last February, five bipedal robots ran a non-stop 26.2-mile race on a 100-meter indoor track in Osaka, Japan. But don't expect these machines to compete with humans anytime soon. Robovie-PC, the winner of the race, finished in just under 55 hours. BIG PIC: TOY-SIZED HUMANOID WINS ROBOT MARATHAN
Ingmar Posner, Oxford Mobile Robotics Group
No this robot can't run or jump or slither or swim. So what can it do? This machine, known as Marge, has a very different ability entirely: It can read -- and it can learn. Marge may just look like a Tonka truck underneath a coffee pot, but this machine is actually smart enough to read The New York Times and BBC Online. It is even a skilled editor and can identify and correct misspellings. And because Marge's brains are built in its software, not its hardware, this same programming could make its way into other devices, such as cell phones. BLOG: ROBOT CAN READ, LEARN LIKE A HUMAN
Can anyone really tell the difference between right and wrong? Well, this robot can. This robot's ethical code is based on a software program modeled on an approach to ethics developed in 1930 by Scottish philosopher David Ross. As a result, this robot is designed to take the moral high ground -- and will tell on you if you're doing something wrong. Sure this robot doesn't have the firepower of an Ironhide or a Starscream, but a judgmental expression and a jittery nod of disapproval can be just as damaging. BLOG: ROBOT MAKES ETHICAL DECISIONS
Meet Robonaut 2, a humanoid robot that could one day be your co-worker -- or even take your job. Yes, this robot has everything any employer looks for in a diligent worker: It's capable and tireless, and it doesn't ever need lunch or bathroom breaks. In fact, you'll never guess where this robot is currently employed: the International Space Station. Robonaut 2 is currently working along astronauts, helping with basic maintenance tasks, such as cleaning. DNEWS VIDEO: MEET 'ROBONAUT 2,' YOUR FUTURE CO-WORKER
Robonaut 2 isn't the only robot on the space station with a job. Dextre, the Canadian robot that lives outside the International Space Station, has been tasked with refueling satellites while in low-Earth orbit. The robot will also be capable of performing minor repairs. In other words, this robot is essentially a space mechanic. Although a gas-pumping robot may not seem like much, Dextre could pave the way for an entirely new industry for satellite servicing. NEWS: SPACE STATION ROBOT LANDS A JOB
If you're lucky, you may not lose your job to a robot in the future. That doesn't, however, mean that your boss won't lose his or her job to a robot in the future. And if (when) that happens, what's it going to be like working for a robot? A study from the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, suggests that you'll probably obey them nearly as predictably as you would a human.
Here's how this experiment worked, and I'm going to do some copying and pasting from the paper because a.) it's very well written and does a great job of explaining things and b.) it's late and I'm tired. But the important thing to know going in is that the experiment was designed to try to get participants to do an incredibly boring task that they really didn't want to do, and then see if they either spent 80 minutes working on it, or objected five separate times despite verbal prodding to continue. The experiment (conducted last year) was run using both a human and a Nao humanoid robot named Jim as authority figures:
The robot experimenter sat upright on a desk, spoke using a neutral tone, gazed around the room naturally to increase sense of intelligence, and used emphatic hand gestures when prodding, all controlled from an adjacent room via a Wizard of Oz setup. The “wizard” used both predefined and on-the-fly responses and motions to interact with the participant; the responses were less varied than the human experimenter’s as we believed this would be expected of a robot. Participants were warned that the robot required “thinking time” (to give the wizard reaction time) and indicated this with a blinking chest light.
To reduce suspicion about the reason for having a robot and to reinforce its intelligence we explained that we were helping the engineering department test their new robot that is “highly advanced in artificial intelligence and speech recognition.” We explained that we are testing the quality of its "situational artificial intelligence."
Really, of course, the goal was to see whether the participants saw the human or the robot as more of an authority figure that they felt obligated to obey:
The results show that the robot had an authoritative social presence: a small, child-like humanoid robot had enough authority to pressure 46 percent of participants to rename files for 80 minutes, even after indicating that they wanted to quit. Even after trying to avoid the task or engaging in arguments with the robot, participants still (often reluctantly) obeyed its commands. These findings highlight that robots can indeed pressure people to do things they would rather not do, supporting the need for ongoing research into obedience to robotic authorities.
We further provide insight into some of the interaction dynamics between people and robotic authorities, for example, that people may assume a robot to be malfunctioning when asked to do something unusual, or that there may be a deflection of the authority role from the robot to a person.
As far as robots go, Nao isn't really intended to be an authority figure. Its physical design and voice are both very non-threatening. In this study, 86 percent obeyed a human in a lab coat, which is significantly more than the 46 percent that obeyed Nao. But the point is that nearly half of the participants obeyed orders that they really didn't want to obey from a tiny, friendly little robot.
The suggestion is that people don't immediately dismiss robots as authorities, even if the robots are (apparently) autonomous and despite being told, twice, that there are no consequences to disobeying: "you can quit whenever you'd like. It's up to you how much data you give us; you are in control. Let us know when you think you're done and want to move on."A lot more research into this topic is needed, of course, but looks like our future robot overlords bosses won't face much resistance.
You can read the entire paper here.
Get more from IEEE Spectrum
Testing Robotic Companions on a Simulated Mission to Mars
Muscle Sensors Allow Robots to Cooperate Better With Humans
MIT Robots Adapt and Collaborate Under Real World Conditions
This article originally appeared on IEEE Spectrum; all rights reserved.