Important Announcement: Flesh-eating Robot Does Not Actually Eat Flesh

In the latest panic over the robot apocalypse, when Cyclone Power Technologies and Robotic Technology Inc announced their bio-mass fueled robot, the media was in an uproar over what they took to be a human-devouring robot. The companies have had to issue a press release assuring the public that their robot is a vegetarian.

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Important Announcement: Flesh-eating Robot Does Not Actually Eat Flesh

We have previously established my disdain for hyped-up reporting of robotics that focus more on the apocalyptic implications of robots than on their actual applications. Imagine my excitement when I saw the headline "Upcoming Military Robot Could Feed On Dead Bodies" from Fox News last week, which quickly propagated throughout my email inbox and RSS feeds. (Fox News has since removed that article in favor of a revised one)

This stemmed from articles that covered two areas. One was the announcement by Robot Technology Inc and Cyclone Power Technologies of a military robot called EATR -- an admittedly ominous choice of acronym -- that is designed to be fueled by "biomass and other organic substances". The other was a quote from P.W. Singer in his recent book, Wired for War, that described organic fuel sources as "grass, broken wood, furniture, [and] dead bodies." When Popular Science combined these two pieces of information in one article, the organic matter hit the fan.

A drawing of EATR from its creator, Robot Technology Inc. Observe the large, gnashing jaws that will devour you without regard for your humanity. Personally, I'm terrified.


In response, Cyclone was forced to issue a second press release assuring people that the robot was only designed to consume plant matter, not dead bodies, to fuel itself.

Despite the far-reaching reports that this includes “human bodies,” the public can be assured that the engine Cyclone has developed to power the EATR runs on fuel no scarier than twigs, grass clippings and wood chips – small, plant-based items for which RTI’s robotic technology is designed to forage. ... “We completely understand the public’s concern about futuristic robots feeding on the human population, but that is not our mission,” stated Harry Schoell, Cyclone’s CEO.

There's a lot more to be said about Singer's book and the way the media has received it -- usually in tandem with alarmist headlines -- but I'll leave it at this. I think it's shameful any technology company has to make a press release establishing that their product does NOT eat humans.


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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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