A 3.5 ton, the two-storey tall racing robot with four steel legs and a massive battery pack in its belly is being built somewhere in Vancouver but this Frankenstein isn’t your autonomous robot from science-fiction.
“Prosthesis: the anti-robot” needs a human inside to operate its colossal limbs. Its creator, Jonathan Tippett, views Prosthesis as a metaphor for the importance of keeping people at the heart of technology.
“Visually and physically it’s this fragile human in the center of this super-powerful, monstrous machine that is completely dormant without the pilot’s will, which I think is how our relationship should remain with our technology,” says Tippett, 42, a mechanical engineer and sculptor.
When Prosthesis would be complete, it will look like a hefty, animal-shaped cage that could have featured in the Hollywood blockbuster “Avatar.” A person will belt into a harness inside its enormous torso and move their arms and legs to maneuver the exoskeleton as an extension of themselves.
Trippet says this will offer a “new human experience” and serve as a counterpoint to the trend of automating everything from vacuums to weapons of war. “This machine is completely immobile unless you pilot it. It has no self-awareness,” adds Tippett, explaining that the pilot will squeeze grips to operate its hydraulics. “You would stand up two storeys in the air and do a little squat jump and leap into the race track ahead of you, and become completely responsible for every move.”
The wearable machine is the antithesis of the kind of robots that leading scientists have warned against as they worry about an arms race in artificial intelligence. Scientist Stephen Hawking and Tesla founder Elon Musk were among hundreds of scientists and tech experts who last year signed an open letter arguing against autonomous weapons, fearing they would fall into the hands of terrorists, dictators, and warlords.
The motivation and inspiration for Prosthesis came from an art installation he spotted 13 years ago at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, a pair of giant dinosaur legs made of welded car parts. The idea got him hooked on building a walking machine he could control with his body.
The first sketch came in 2006 and the project was launched in 2010. Since then, hundreds of people have been involved in every stage of the design, testing and construction, which Tippett almost solely funded himself.
Tippett’s core team is now building the final machine — slated to be unveiled in January — after spending four years developing a prototype of its leg that is scaled to two-thirds of its full size.