Saturday, September 6, 2008


I’ve been a science fiction reader since I was about fourteen. Now I’m forty five (sigh) and what I’ve started to notice is that things which were once truly science fiction, are starting to pop up here and now, or at any rate, almost here and almost now. Not too surprising over a period of thirty odd years, but sometimes I come across something which I thought was a long way in the future and discover that it is (almost) here now.

So I’ve decided to start a blog about these things, and anything else futurist related that catches my eye and interests me. It’ll probably be mostly links to such stories, sometimes with my own views about them too.

I realise that such a vague description could be applied to many things, but I’m particularly referring to things that arrive seemingly out of the blue or much earlier than expected. Well, earlier than I had expected anyway. An opposite example might be Artificial Intelligence – back in the sixties, many researchers seemed to think that it was only a few decades away, but now a few decades on, AI (at least in the sense of sentient computers) seems much further away than ever.

Perhaps a better example might be this one from the field of robotics. I read a fair bit of (light layman) stuff about where robotics is at. And it seemed to me that when it came to walking on legs, robots still had a long way to go – they waddle slowly or fall over or are easily upset in some fashion. And most of them seem to pretty much require a flat surface to walk on. Hardly any could even walk up stairs (well done Asimo). And for the real world, that is a real problem. A major advantage of legs (over wheels say) is their ability to cope with multiple kinds of terrain aka the real world. Alright, I’m largely talking about bipedal, autonomous robots at least as regards the walking and balancing function. I hadn’t actually paid too much attention to multi-legged robots.

Until now that is, when I read about BigDog from Boston Dynamics. Check out this video on their site! When the guy kicks it way off balance or after it slips on the ice, and it still manages to recover it’s balance – amazing! Furthermore it can carry a significant load and cope with rough ground and slopes.

OK it’s annoyingly noisy and probably doesn’t do much else well, but after watching that video I really don’t find it hard to imagine that in ten or twenty years we could all have our own cheap, robot dog to carry our bags as we go shopping, or our tents as we go camping – or perhaps a robot horse. Way more practical than a Segway! The necessary incremental improvements in strength, balance, reliability, power and cost are the kind of things that industry is good at and are just a matter of time. It is the breakthrough in balance and locomotion that seems to me to be the bit of the future that has just become true.

Perhaps not quite as cool as Luke Skywalker’s speeder (flying cars are another opposite example) but I still rather fance the idea of a cheap, tireless electric horse that could just be kept in the garage. Does anyone except me remember the story in a UK comic (about thirty years ago) about a highwayman and his horse who were mysteriously transported through time to the present day? His horse Bess, was converted to a futuristic robot horse of some sort. Funnily enough, when I was reading it, it never occurred to me to ask why his horse was converted to a robot, but he was not!

Once again Google helps out – apparently he was called Nick Jolly and the comic was the Hotspur. Some info here.

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