18 robots that will give you the creeps

Some robots are designed to be cute and approachable. This is not that gallery.
By Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer
1 of 18 Greg Nichols/ZDNET

Medical Microbots by Selman Sakar, Hen-Wei Wuang, and Bradley Nelson

Swiss scientists at EPFL, a university in Lausanne, have developed a method for building microrobots that are small enough to use inside the body to deliver drugs with pinpoint precision. That's pretty cool, and no doubt the bots will be put to productive use. But imagine for a moment that one of these remote controlled gizmos gets into the wrong hands.

Unlike conventional robots, the microbots have no motor and are soft and flexible. They swim thanks to magnetic nanoparticles that respond to an applied electromagnetic field, and they're the size of bacterium, meaning they can go anywhere in the body. That's what I call a fantastically frightening journey.

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Han by Hanson Robotics

In 1970, roboticist Masahiro Mori theorized that humanoids that look a lot like people but don't totally nail it inspire feelings of revulsion. His notion of the "uncanny valley" certainly applies to Han, which made its debut in April 2015. Built by Hanson Robotics, Han is a bald-headed, oddly masculine-looking robot with a dry wit. Anyone else feel ill-at-ease with his come hither expression?

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Cassie by Agility Robotics

What's creepier than a robot that looks almost human? How about a robot that looks like half a human? Cassie, by Agility Robotics, is a bipedal robot for walking and running. Bipedal locomotion is incredibly difficult to engineer. Right now, Cassie is available for research and development markets. The legs-only platform is designed for robotics engineers to tinker with and crack the code of walking upright. But encounter this thing in the forest, which is where a lot of the promotional photos were inexplicably shot, and you'll be the one running away.

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Female Figure by Jordan Wolfson

Sweet lord, why? Artist Jordan Wolfson's life-sized, animatronic sculpture is a creepy blonde in a white dress, thigh-high vinyl boots, and a witch's mask. The robot's body is smeared with dirt, and she's programmed to dance in front of a mirror while using facial recognition to make uncomfortable eye contact with viewers. Unlike the other robots on this list, Female Figure is meant to look creepy, a commentary on idealized femininity and objectification. Mission very much accomplished.

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Robot Mouth by Professor Hideyuki Sawada from Kagawa University in Japan

Based very closely on a human mouth, this nightmarish monstrosity uses an air pump for lungs and has fake vocal cords, a silicon tongue, and a nasal resonance cavity that opens and closes. The idea is to figure out how to anatomically replicate the human mouth, which will go a long way toward making robots more realistic. Professor Sawada's robot mouth can hear itself speak, which enables it to analyze what it's doing and make itself more intelligible. More than we can say for some humans.

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Samantha by Synthea Amatus

Sometimes it's not the robot that makes you feel uncomfortable. In the case of Samantha, it's definitely how people are using it. According to the manufacturer's website, "Samantha is much more than a sex doll." Sure, the artificially intelligent, interactive humanoid can be programmed to tell jokes and has, outrageously, a "family" mode. But that's probably not why customers are shelling out $4,000 for one. And the robot's sense of humor did little to stop male patrons at an electronic show recently from groping and mounting it, causing costly damage. Welcome to the future.

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The Actroid robots by Kokoro

This is another uncanny valley situation. The Actroid robots, which debuted in 2003 and have been upgraded several times since, were designed to replicate an average, young woman of Japanese descent as closely as possible. To be fair, the later versions, which are actuated with air compressors and respond to social cues and voice commands, are pretty realistic. But something about seeing these perfectly composed, almost human bots gives us the heebie-jeebies. No one is that calm.

8 of 18 Greg Nichols/ZDNET

Handle by Boston Dynamics

Remember that episode of The Office where the gang got really into Parkour? This robot from Boston Dynamics would destroy Dwight. And then it might destroy humanity. During the robot's introduction this year, Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert said, "This is the debut presentation of what I think will be a nightmare-inducing robot."

Since it takes motion to understand how creepy this thing is, do yourself a favor and check out this clip. It's like a ghoul awakened from a deep slumber and out for a hunt. It's also a remarkable feat of physics that combines wheels and legs to provide an agile, high-speed platform that can spin circles around more clunky non-wheeled bipeds.

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Alter by Takashi Ikegami

Jointly developed by laboratories studying artificial life at Osaka University and the University of Tokyo, Alter is powered by a neural network. Uniquely, the robot decides to move on its own, waving its arms, fingers, the upper torso, and its head, as well as making facial expressions, when it chooses based on inputs from the surrounding world. Though crude, the robot may be an early step toward true artificial intelligence.

10 of 18 Greg Nichols/ZDNET

Underwater Snakes by Kongsberg Maritime and a natural gas and oil company called Statoil

You creeped me out at "underwater snake." Instead of using large and expensive vessels for small jobs, the developers of this underwater nightmare envisioned a flexible robot acting as janitor of the seafloor for undersea inspection of pipelines and hard-to-access infrastructure. Using its snake-like form, the slender and flexible robot, known as Eelume, lives permanently underwater and can access confined areas with snake-like ease. No word on whether they'll be irksome enemies to Harry Potter and his Gryffindor friends.

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Kaspar the social robot by the University of Hertfordshire

This little guy looks an awful lot like Chucky's even-more-deviant cousin. But Kaspar comes in peace and has an important job. The robot was designed to be expressive, offering a more predictable and repetitive form of communication than humans to children with autism. With help from Kaspar, kids with autism are learning to read human emotion.

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Big Dog by Boston Dynamics

Big Dog has been around for the better part of a decade, so you may have forgotten how absolutely frightening it was the first time you laid eyes on it. BigDog has four legs that are articulated like an animal's. The robot's control system keeps it balanced and manages locomotion on a wide variety of terrain. The thing runs at an impressive 10 kmh, climbs slopes up to 35 degrees, walks across rubble, ascends muddy hiking trails, walks in snow and water, and carries up to 150kg loads. Developed under a a DARPA grant, it could be the foundation for a do-everything pack mule for the military.

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Diego-San by David Hanson

How do humans learn? Roboticist David Hanson created Diego-San to help find out. The tiny humanoid robot was built to learn from the world around it just like a human would during early development. Hanson created the robot for the Machine Perception Lab at the UCSD Institute for Neural Computation. One thing the researchers have already learned? That David Hanson builds some creepy looking robots.

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Hexa by Vincross

HEXA is a 6-legged, highly maneuverable, compact robot that comes complete with all the necessary sensors. The robot is extremely graceful, and faster than we'd like anything with six legs to be. It was designed to be a blank slate, a platform for developers to experiment with. Let us pray it doesn't fall into the wrong hands.

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Octavia by the U.S. Navy

Octavia is a Navy prototype robot responsible for damage control in the event of a fire. It's designed to work side-by-side with humans, and it can actually interpret gestures in order to respond to commands in noisy and chaotic disaster situations. The lower half of the robot is a modified Segway. The Navy is on to something with a firefighting robot--fire is one of the chief concerns aboard a ship--but it really needs to work on the form factor. That face is enough to sink a thousand ships.

16 of 18 Greg Nichols/ZDNET

Sweating Man by the University of Tokyo

Japanese researchers recently came up with a cool idea to cool off robots, which often overheat thanks to the tremendous energy used by their high-torque motors: Rig them to sweat.

The researchers, from the University of Tokyo's JSK Lab used the bones of Kegoro, their 1.7-meter tall, 56-kilogram musculoskeletal humanoid, to channel small amounts of cooling liquid to areas of high heat. The result? The coolant-delivery system enables Kegoro to do more push ups than it was previously able to do. Bio-mimicry is a promising area of robotics research. It's also a creepy one.

17 of 18 Greg Nichols/ZDNET

Scorpion by the University of Ghent

Why not build a robot capable of stinging people? That was the question engineers at the University of Ghent asked before setting off on the task of building a six-legged scorpion. The scorpion responds to interactions and can move in all directions. Fortunately, the stinger in this case is a harmless red marker. But it wouldn't be tough to rig the tip of the tail with something more harmful.

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Treaded military robot

There are growing numbers of remote-control weapons on today's battlefields. Instead of risking precious human life, warfighters can send in a small armed vehicle capable of taking out an enemy position. So far these systems are controlled by users in the field. The creepy part? With the rapid advance of autonomous vehicle technology, it's only a matter of time before these mobile weapons become autonomous, a future that should give everyone chills.

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