Fear Not, Meatbags: An Introduction to Zero Moment

The LS3, a robotic pack-mule developed by Boston Dynamics, was one of the latest bots to be greeted with requisite Terminator quips.Boston Dynamics

Welcome to Zero Moment, a shiny new blog—part of Popular Science’s just-launched blog network—covering the strange history and surprising future of robotics.

About that future: Zero Moment isn’t an open mic for stale jokes about robot uprisings, or a roll call of machines gawked at for their sideshow creep factor. Robotics is the rare research field defined by science fiction writers before it even existed. It was Isaac Asimov, after all, who first coined the term, and whose famous Laws of Robotics continue to be referenced by geeks and researchers alike as established axioms, despite the fact that they’re intentionally hobbled, a narrative device expertly designed to foster dramatic conflicts. And that sense of doom, whether through simple glitch, or manifest inorganic destiny, persists. SF named and predicted the machines now proliferating throughout our world, but it also cursed them, mythologizing the merciless, calculating robot so deeply that even the best journalists can’t resist a chortling reference to Skynet, even when covering an automated vacuum too stupid to navigate a room with head-butting every wall.

It’s true that robots are everywhere. They’re at sea, on land, and in the air, toiling away in factories, hospitals, and war zones. And more are coming, a staggering number and variety of remote-operated surgeons and autonomous cars, systems responsible for lives and deaths. But this invasion, well under way, is almost universally a good thing. Bots die instead of explosive ordinance disposal techs. They patrol the skies and seas, tracking the impact of humans on the planet’s climate. They’re tools and surrogates, a proxy class whose development and deployment sheds more light on its masters than on some collective fantasy of future rebellion.

So, no Skynet jokes. There are better ways of understanding some of the most important technological innovations of this, or any century, than by laughingly demonizing them. Zero Moment is about where robots are from, where they’re going, and why resistance isn’t just futile—it’s embarrassing.

The blog’s name is a reference to two-legged robots. For most walking humanoid bots, when its foot is securely planted, and its balance is stabilized, with no movement threatening to topple the entire system, that’s often referred to as the zero moment point, or ZMP. It’s the moment between one successful step, and the next.