DARPA's Robotics Challenge Proves Engineering Is Harder Than Empathy

The 2015 Finals promised something they couldn't deliver then delivered something else entirely.

Earlier today I wrote about what was supposed to be the super extreme, totally rad, unbelievably futuristic DARPA Robotics Challenge 2015 Finals, a competition featuring 24 international teams, their highly advanced robots, and an eight-part obstacle course. It should have been an awesome window into the future our best and brightest are building for us. But it ended up just being kind of boring, which is (somewhat paradoxically) interesting.

As it turns out, engineering is hard and empathy is easy.

My expectations were admittedly high (think: Optimus Prime busting through walls) and I was rooting for, of course, Team USA. To a lesser degree, I was just rooting for excellence. After all, these were practical machines designed to aid humans in need during disaster situations.

The livestream started off a little rocky. There were people talking at podiums, cutaways to random scaffolding, and no audio. Once it started to look like there’d be some robot action, it was just guys in hard hats and mesh team vests drinking coffee and standing around shooting the shit.

When the competition finally did kick off with the first event, which had the robots drive a vehicle on their own, the action played out at a snail’s pace. It didn’t seem like anyone — including the team members — had any idea what was going on, and when there was finally a robot behind the wheel it sat there and didn’t do anything but creep along. 

At this point I had to turn my full attention away from the challenge because I couldn’t just spend four hours watching robots sit around doing nothing. When I briefly tuned back in there seemed to be some progress. Robots were actually walking, moving, and even driving! But again, it was a plodding, decidedly non-extreme bore. 

The robots were so slow, and would move so infrequently as they pulled off such intense stunts as turning a door nob or drilling a hole in a wall, that I had to keep checking whether my Internet was working properly. It turns out the Internet was fine, and it was just the robots taking their sweet time to do relatively inconsequential things. 

Then there was the aforementioned audio problem, which wasn’t actually a problem at all. Every once in awhile a commentator would break the silence to do his commentator thing and try to liven up the monotony of silently watching a robot try to walk up a set of stairs. 

I don’t want to be too cynical though. A lot of manpower and unbelievable ingenuity went into creating the robots themselves, which, when it boils down to it, were fairly fascinating on an individual level. I actually found myself rooting for IHMC Robotics’ Running Man, especially when it fell over during the debris field event.

As far as I know, Running Man doesn’t have any real feelings because he’s a robot, but in that brief fleeting moment when its gyros went out of whack, sending it tumbling down a single step, I certainly felt sorry for him.

The robots that took part in the challenge are amazing. The fact that we have the technology to make one drive a car all on its own is undeniably fascinating. But there’s harm in not letting the inherent awesomeness of the technology speak for itself, and instead trying to make it into some kind of flashy competition. Framing it as a game slightly loses sight of why these teams ostensibly built the robots in the first place. They’re there to potentially save lives, and not compete in the relatively lifeless Robot Olympics.    

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