There are really only two emotions the subject of robots seems to generate, Robert Playter, the chief executive officer of robot manufacturer Boston Dynamics, said today at Collision 2022 in Toronto: Anxiety or joy.
The anxiety may be the result of the thinking that the company’s flagship robot named Spot, which was brought on stage to thunderous applause, and others like it are there to take away jobs that humans would normally do.
Playter said nothing could be further from the truth.
“Our goal is to build robots that work with us and in our places of work,” he said. “They don’t displace workers, they enhance what they do.”
An example of that, Playter added, could be in a warehouse where instead of someone unloading boxes, the company’s warehouse and distribution centre robot called Stretch would do it and the human would evolve where he or she would become a robot operator.
Unloading containers is one of the worst jobs in the warehouse,” he said. “It’s repetitive, it’s backbreaking work, it can be extremely hot in the summer and extremely cold in the winter. And so, we think that this robot is going to find great reception in the logistics industry.”
Boston Dynamics states on its Web site that while it “takes the natural world as inspiration for our robots, the design is ultimately motivated by functionality. Our robots end up moving like humans and animals, not because we designed them to look like humans and animals but because we made them balance.
“Balance and dynamic motion are characteristics we have previously only seen in animals. It is this organic quality of dynamically stable motion that people tend to associate with lifelike movement.”
Playter said the company currently has close to 1,000 robots out in the field doing a variety of jobs
“And I’ve been saying with confidence that we can build robots that can pretty much go anywhere a person could go. And in some cases, even building robots that exceed human capabilities.”
These include collecting data to measure the performance of equipment on a manufacturing floor and detecting failures before they actually fail in order to avoid unintended downtime. Robots are also used on construction sites and in mines and in power plants to conduct a series of different and varied jobs.
As for what is next for the company, Playter said, “we think the forefront of robotics is in mobile manipulation. We saw very simple manipulation tasks here; we saw Stretch picking up boxes. But really the world is full of much more complex shapes.
“If we’re going to have have robots that work with us, we need to extend the capabilities of robots to use their hands. And I think we need to build two-handed robots because some jobs that we see in manufacturing environments really require two hands for some of the tasks.”
To that end, the company has created a research platform called Atlas, which it says is “designed to push the limits of whole-body mobility.”
Pat Marion, a senior robotics engineer at Boston Dynamics, wrote in a recent blog that on the Atlas project, the company is using parkour, an athletic training discipline, “as an experimental theme to study problems related to rapid behavior creation, dynamic locomotion, and connections between perception and control that allow the robot to adapt – quite literally – on the fly.
“Robot perception algorithms are used to convert data from sensors like cameras and lidar into something useful for decision making and planning physical actions.”