DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, has opened a competition to build humanoid robots to aid in disaster recovery efforts. My Popular Mechanics story on the DARPA Robotics Challenge, posted on Thursday, gives the particulars of the two year race, which offers more than $3 million in prize money to a first-place finisher.

As I point out in the article, DARPA says it isn’t necessarily looking for humanoid robots, just machines that can drive vehicles, climb over rubble, open doors, and operate tools designed for humans, and do it with minimal human supervision. But it is hard to imagine such a machine that doesn’t take the same basic size and shape of a human.

Of course, it is easy to imagine uses for semi-autonomous military robots that can operate power tools, humanoid or not, besides the humanitarian ones touted by DARPA.

But DARPA’s program manager for the challenge, Gill Pratt, steered clear of the sinister in his response (which I didn’t have room for in my article) to my question about his personal motives for running the program.

“This program is important to me because robots are tremendously important for improving our quality of life. For example, it is projected that by 2050, one out of every 5 people in the united states will be over age 65. Who is going to take care of us as we grow old? I believe that robots are a big part of the answer. Not just robots to help the elderly, but robots to help everyone be more productive—to allow us to make the most of our lives and to relieve us of dull, dirty and dangerous tasks.”