Mark Grossman: What’s in a Robot Name? IRNG — Imaginative Robot Name Gap

22 August 2013

Militarily, the United States is unsurpassed. American soldiers are expertly trained. American weapons exceed those of any other nation in terms of both sophistication and sheer power. American military technology is a wonder to behold. We have long left the world of the 1960’s — a world in which pundits could place the U.S. on the wrong side of a weapons gap with any other nation. Sadly, however, another gap has emerged at the very center of this superior military technology: the Imaginative Robot Name Gap.

Robots are the ultimate symbols of high-tech. Their characteristics and capabilities are not just amazing, they’re really cool.  Putting aside America’s amazing techno-military resources, consider our robot naming resources.  After food, America’s top export is advertising.  America has Hollywood, the motion picture glitz capital of the world.  With these formidable, creative resources, why can’t our military and defense contractors seem to be able to come up with cool, or even exciting, names for military robots?

Now, we’re not speaking in terms of actual military strength, resiliency, audacity or, most of all, technology. Rather, we’re speaking in terms of imagination when it comes to naming robots. The U.S. may be first in every other category, but in imaginative robot names, I doubt that the U.S. could rank among the top 50 nations in the world.

The issue is America’s IRNG — Imaginative Robot Name Gap.

Consider Boston Dynamics’ amazing four-legged robot that carries more than 400 pounds through terrain too rough for wheels. Not only does this robotic marvel travel, it travels fast. Imagine this resilient four-legged chrome and steal monster swiftly moving through an almost impassible forest, relentlessly making its way to its destination — no — its target. Laden with a fifth of a ton of gear, its continuous, intrepid movements strike terror into the hearts of any enemy. Pretty scary, in a cool sort of way, isn’t it?

But what do they call this marvel? The Jungle Rat? The Mountain Devil? The Spider? None of these names made the cut. Instead, this robotic wonder is called “Robo-Mule.” [1]

“Mule?!”

Gee, I bet it took all of 20 seconds to think that one up. Sure, this robot actually does exactly what a mule used to do, but is this any kind of a name to give to this amazing ‘bot?

Some commentators have tried to conceal this dead zone of unimaginative robot naming by pointing out that this tough practical robot deserved this drab, anticlimax of a name because it is inelegant.

Inelegant? These are load-carrying ‘bots intended to accompany the Marines on treks through rough terrain in hostile territory. Nobody’s expecting the Robo-Mule to pirouette through the jungles and mountains like a ballerina. But that doesn’t mean this robot can’t have a cool, or even menacing, name.

A robot’s name doesn’t have to match its function. The name just has to sound good.  Consider American over-the-road trucks.  Trucks are called “Ram,” “Ranger,” “Silverado,” and “Avalanche.” And what do trucks do? They haul stuff. Do these brand names have anything to do with hauling stuff? Rams don’t haul anything. Rangers don’t haul stuff, they patrol around. Who knows what a Silverado is anyway? And the Chevy Avalanche? What does an avalanche have to do with hauling anything? These names just sound cool. This is what advertising can do with trucks. Why can’t we do as much for our military robots?

And to underline my point, let’s extend the truck analogy. Suppose, instead of “Ram Tough,” it was “Mule Tough?” How about changing Chevy Silverado to the “Chevy Mule?” If DARPA ever got a hold of the Chevy Avalanche, they’d rename it the “Chevy Sinkhole.”

Worse yet, “Robo-Mule” isn’t even a new name. It was given to another, earlier model, over 10 years ago, and quickly discarded.  Who would have ever dreamed that this cast-off, retread of a name would be fished out of the dumpster and given to a state-of-the-art military ‘bot . . . again?

To give the reader a better appreciation of the dreary history military robot naming, let’s take a melancholy stroll down “Unimaginative Robot Name” Lane.

In 2002, Boston Dynamics [2] created a four-legged robot for military use. This robot could carry only 320 lbs of gear. It made a sound like a swarm of bees. An experienced cow-tipper could put this ‘bot out of action. If tipped, it couldn’t get back up. However, for a short time, it had one thing in common with Boston Dynamics’ newest robotic quadruped. This 2002 robot was briefly named “Robo-Mule.”

With the creation of the first four-legged military robot more than a decade ago, a new era of really cool robotic technology dawned. Tragically, the christening, and re-christening, of this same robot created the Imaginative Robot Name Gap.

It was an exciting time for those of us who closely follow military robot-naming.  During those idyllic days, I was optimistic and hopeful.  The name “mule” was a let-down, but a chance for redemption came when the developers of the first model of this four-legged robot announced they were giving it a new name. My relief was only surpassed by my hopes. What would the new exciting “brand” be? What new and clever, yet terrifying, name would be selected. I was sure it would be a name that would strike fear into the hearts of any enemy.  Then, the new name was announced.

“Big Dog.”

Well, . . . I still don’t know what to say about the name “Big Dog.” [3] To use a metaphor involving heat would imply excitement. The name “Big Dog” is anything but exciting. So, instead of saying the name-change was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire, let’s just say that replacing “Robo-Mule” with “Big Dog” was something like jumping from the refrigerator into the deep freeze.  I still can’t get over it.  Big Dog!”

Was that the best they could do?

Ignoring the fact that, functionally, this robot really has nothing to do with a dog, let’s see if we can use this new name as a “creative starting point.” Did anyone consider substituting different words with similar meanings for “Big” and “Dog?” Words that were more . . . exciting?

Instead of “big,” how about “monster?” Instead of “dog,” how about “pit bull” or “rottweiler?” Better yet, “wolf.” “Monster Wolf.” Even better — wolves aren’t load-bearing, pack animals, so there’s no such thing as a pack-wolf. But why not reverse the “pack” and the “wolf” and change the name to “Wolf Pack.” Give each robot the scary name of a pack of wolves with the word “pack” as a sort of pun referring to the robot’s ability to haul heavy gear like a pack animal.

Well, . . . no matter. We’re locking the barn door long after the robot has been named.  We’re stuck with “Big Dog.”

The year was 2005. Boston Dynamics announced a new and improved four-legged ‘bot. This new robot was less noisy and traveled a bit faster than the “Big Dog Mule.” These improvements were good news, but new developments weren’t the critical issue. The important issue was the new name. Would it be imaginative enough?

The suspense left me with a sinking feeling. I’d been disappointed before.  But my fears faded when the new robot was described as more of an equine, horse-like, robot. This was exciting. Boston Dynamics had developed a swift robo-horse. The horse metaphor would provide a treasure-trove of exciting name possibilities. What would I have called it? Maybe the Coldblood Trotter, the Tiger Horse, or the Warlander.  When the announcement came, what was the new name?

“Alpha Dog.”

Let’s recap: “Mule” was followed by “Big Dog.” “Big Dog” was followed by the — oh, so imaginative — “Alpha Dog.” [4] Another 15 seconds of creative thought invested in the newest robot name. I guess moving from the name “Dog” to anther animal was too big a creative leap — even after the developers described the new robot as horse-like. After all, who would have thought to name a horse-like robot after a horse instead of a dog?!

I could see the imaginative robot name gap taking on the proportions of an undersea trench. But, before we move on, let’s stop to ask: Why “Alpha?” Alpha means “first,” but this is the second model. Maybe alpha means “leader,” like an “alpha wolf.” But these machines don’t operate in coordination with each other? So there is no dominant or even lead robot. Well, who knows? And . . . there’s no point in rehashing the retention of the word “Dog” in the name. I said all I have to say about that yawn-boring name a few paragraphs ago.

After our nation fell into this “Big Alpha Mule Dog” tar-pit of lame robot names, I had all but given up hope when something amazing happened. With one new robot and one new name, the Imaginative Robot Name Gap seemed to all but disappear.

In 2011, Boston Dynamics developed the “Robo-Cheetah.” [5] Reaching speeds up to 18 mph, it was the fastest four-legged robot on earth. This new ‘bot left the Robo-Mule (or “Big Alpha Dog” or whatever) far behind and not just in terms of speed, but in style.

This robot boasts a “cat-like spine,” which “flexes and extends” with the robot’s galloping stride. And does it gallop — “constantly tipping forward, falling, and regaining equilibrium with every step.”

Slap an American flag on each one of these and paint the word “CHEETAH” in bold red, white and blue letters all over it. On the very front of the ‘bot, paint a big cat face with a ferocious expression. Then, ship these off to the battlefield. The robot name gap is closing fast!

I don’t know what happened to produce this fantastic name. Something must have disrupted the normal robot naming process. I can only guess that, by some amazing coincidence, the military’s “robot namer,” (let’s call him, Major Dullman,) and the military contractor’s “robot brander,” (let’s call him VP Mildew,) were both out sick that day. Of course, none of the remaining crew could think of a single name. Then, a teenager inadvertently stumbled into the room. Realizing that the new robot looked like a giant cat, he or she probably said, “Cool, a robotic cheetah.” Then, asked where the nearest soft drink machine was located. The rest is robot-naming history.

My faltering faith in our ability to close the gap was all but restored with “Robo-Cheetah.” I could see a light at the end of the tunnel, which would, of course, prove to be a train coming in the opposite direction.

This brings us, full circle, back to the present — the 2012 announcement by Boston Dynamics of the creation of an amazingly advanced descendant of their “Alpha Big Dog.” Yes, everything about this new ‘bot is better, except its name: “Robo-Mule.” Dullman and Mildew were back on the job again and at the top of their form. No one wasted even 10 or 20 seconds on this one. They just took the oldest discarded name they could find in the wastebasket and slapped it on this amazing triumph or modern robotic technology.

I began having nightmares in which DARPA announced that even Robo-Cheetah has been renamed “Robo-Cuddles the Tabby Cat.” I’d awake, covered with sweat, shouting, “No!”  “No!”  As soon as I awoke, however, I knew it was only a dream. I knew because “Robo-Cuddles the Tabby Cat” was far too imaginative a name for Dullman and Mildew. They’d rename Robo-Cheetah something like “Robo-Pig” or “Robo-Snail.”

As the hours tick by, our strategic preparedness, in terms of imaginative robot names, is diminishing to almost nothing. We want our robots to confront the enemy and incapacitate them with fear — not uncontrolled laughter. Of course, the enemy will be defeated with the aid of these formidable robotic weapons. But after each victorious battle, the sound of derisive enemy laughter at our pathetic robot names will still be ringing in the ears of our victorious soldiers. They deserve better. Yes, our soldiers deserve robots with imaginative names.

The critical robot naming crisis is going from worse to much worse. Lame robot names are becoming part of the culture of our techno-military development process. Potential military contractors are catching on. Lame robot names attract military attention. In other words, the sillier and more unimaginative the robot’s name, the better.

We can see an example of this downward trend played out in a project undertaken by Virginia Tech and funded by the U.S. Navy, which led to the development of a “life-like, autonomous” underwater robot. [6] About the size and weight of a man, this ‘bot consists of a central core of components in a waterproof shell connected to eight moving arms. [7] The drone is capable of feats of amazing speed, endurance, and versatility while patrolling the ocean depths on “underwater surveillance missions.”

The naming possibilities were staggering. Perhaps, stingray, shark, barracuda, or something really scary, like “devilfish.” But no sooner had I thought these happy thoughts than I realized I was dreaming dreams. These experienced defense contractors, working directly with the military, were firmly in grip of the military-industrial complex’s robot misnaming machine.

And I was right. What did they name this intrepid sentinel of the deep?

“Robo-Jelly.”

No, that’s not a typo. The name was “Robo-Jelly.” Then, they changed the name. By this time, however, I was both sadder and wiser. I didn’t get my hopes up. But even my lowered expectations weren’t enough of a cushion. The name was changed from “Robo-Jelly” to “Cyro, the robotic jellyfish.” How cute. He should have his own cartoon show, like “Barney,” the dinosaur.

Jellyfish can certainly be a bit unpleasant. They’re all squishy, and they sting. But, somehow, being swarmed by a by a school of Robo-Jellies just isn’t the same thing as being swarmed by a school of Robo-Sharks or Robo-Devilfish is it?

While the underwater robotic technology of other nations will be far inferior to our own, their robots will have names that will send a shiver down your spine. You’ll be a bit apprehensive even before you see one. However, what will happen when our enemies hear about an approaching school of U.S. “Robo-Jellies?” Will this name fill them with fear? Or will this name evoke nothing more than a vision of being swarmed by waitresses with marmalade at IHOP?

Just imagine yourself as the only American at a cosmopolitan gathering. Foreign friends brag about their nations’ new telecommunications satellites and ionospheric heaters — all of which have formidable, even frightening, names. Then, in condescending tones, someone will ask you about how America’s doing with its new robot made out of Jello. You’ll try to explain that there’s no Jello involved and that the actual name is “Cyro the Jellyfish.” But your attempted explanation will be lost as the group dissolves into deafening laughter.

Moments later, still stinging from your Robo-Jelly humiliation, you’ll attempt to reenter the conversation only to be met with the same looks and tones as the same foreign friends ask pointed questions about the continuing development and deployment of “Robo-Jackass.” Again, you’ll try to explain that its name is “Mule” or “Big Dog” or “Alpha Dog.” As you are trying to defend your nation’s superior technology, you’ll find yourself hampered and, then, trapped in the tangled web of America’s farcical automatonic nomenclature. The Imaginative Robot Name Gap strikes again.

Update: 5 October 2013 — Boston Dynamics presents Robo-Cheetah’s smaller sibling: the well-named “WildCat.” [video] [story]  I found this story and video on RT.  I bet the Russians are green with envy!  [Additional links below]

Robo Wildcat Update Links:

Terrifying Wildcat military robot can hunt down any human in 9 seconds

Boston Dynamics Releases Its Four-Legged WildCat Robot

Watch that robo-WildCat go: Boston Dynamics’ newest four-legged robot – Los Angeles Times

This Video of a Cyborg Quadriped Will Have You Gasping in Terror

Have You Seen the Military’s ‘Throwable Robots?’

Meet Wildcat, The Military’s Wireless Running Robot: VIDEO

Watch as four-legged robot known as WildCat purrs along at 16 mph (video)

Four-Legged, DARPA Running War Robot Released (VIDEO)

Wildcat: the fastest legged robot in the world

Links and Notes:

[1] Robo-mule: The military’s rugged new wilderness beast

[2] Boston Dynamics – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

[3] Big Dog

[4] Meet AlphaDog, the terrifying robot horse the military’s building

[5] The Pentagon’s ‘freakily fast’ robo-cheetah

[6] Large robotic jellyfish could one day patrol oceans

[7] Meet Cyro, the robotic jellyfish that will haunt your dreams

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