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The Pentagon Has Designed A Terminator Robot Which Will Save Lives

Atlas cuts an intimidating figure at first. Standing at six feet two inches in height (187 centimeters for everybody who's metric), it looks like something Skynet would design to keep humans under its heel. Somehow, that makes the robot's intended purpose feel just faintly ironic: it's made to save lives.

Atlas is one of many entrants in a DARPA-sponsored competition to produce a man-like disaster relief robot. The contest - which will see robots navigating rough terrain and entering ruined buildings - was dreamed up as a result of the devastating Fukushima disaster in Japan, where a massive tsunami devastated a large portion of the Japanese coastline and caused a catastrophic meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant.  Currently, Atlas is passively occupying a display stand, with only LED lighting to indicate it's anything more than decoration.

According to Brad Tousley, head of DARPA's technology office, robots have come a long way in the past few years, but they aren't even close to the unreasonably expectations created for them by Hollywood. In the world of robotics, tasks as simple as climbing ladders, opening doors, and carrying small objects require a herculean effort and the work of both engineers and computer scientists. That isn't to say scientists haven't made progress, though.  

While United States Defense Secretary Clark Hagel was touring the facility where Atlas was stored, a wounded veteran - equipped with the latest in robotic prosthetics - gave him a thumbs up with his artificial arm. Again, that might not seem like such a difficult task, but the technology to allow for such a thing didn't even exist a few years ago. It may seem like we're moving forward in baby steps, but we've actually advanced in leaps and bounds. 

For the veteran, it was the first time in 45 years he was able to use his left hand. The device was controlled with accelerometers strapped to his feet. 

According to Hagel, the technology in this arm - much of which has found its way into Atlas - will have a dramatic effect on the lives of wounded soldiers. He called it "transformational," noting that it's like nothing we've ever seen before.  That's not all the team behind Atlas is doing, either.

They also showed off a patient whose brain was implanted with a sensor that allowed her to control a mechanical arm by thought alone, as well as a black mechanical limb which responded entirely to brain impulses - and which is actually capable of sending impulses back to the brain; sensations such as touch. This system should, if all goes as planned, be ready in a few months. 

"People said it would be 50 years before we saw this technology in humans, but we did it in a few years," noted Justin Sanchez, medical doctor and program manager at DARPA. Hagel was reportedly shown other technology, as well, but journalists were ushered out of the facility before the demonstrations; these may have included a cyber warfare project, a system for linking tactical air controllers via tablets and a new long-range anti-ship missile system with less dependence on global navigation systems. 

Alright, so...what does all of this mean for robotics? 

Well...quite a bit, actually. If we're perfecting artificial limbs to the point that they're indistinguishable from actual limbs, just imagine what that could mean for locomotion in human-like robots. We could be on the verge of a breakthrough in the world of robotics, and we haven't even seen the fruits of the DARPA competition yet.