Business Unusual

Robots are coming! They're running, jumping and doing the backflip to get here

This is the story of a professor who could appreciate how amazing it is for humans to stand upright.

Marc Reibart, the founder of Boston Dynamics, was a Professor at MIT when he founded the company in 1992.

His aim was to build a bipedal and quadrupedal robot that would be self-balancing and do general tasks.

That ability in humans takes only a few years; it has taken him and his team of engineers almost 25 years and only now are the robots at the level of a 6-year-old, albeit a very strong and dexterous 6-year-old.

The original funding came from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Big Dog was the first. A cow sized quadruped that was designed to balance and travel over varied terrain and carry a load of 150 kg. The hope was that it could support soldiers in the field with transporting equipment. The project ended in 2015 as the robot engine was deemed too loud. But it could walk unassisted over almost any terrain and should it be pushed or fall, it could get up and continue.

A smaller, quieter version was also shelved as not being able to carry enough weight, but a newer model called the spot mini is still being developed.

It has a robot hand and is small and quiet enough to be used in a home. It is being tested for doing package deliveries or to become a home companion.

An offshoot of the Big Dog was the Cheetah, which could not only walk on all terrain it could run.

Two other experiments were a gecko type machine called Rise that could climb trees and rough walls, while the sand flea would use an incredible jump to launch itself onto a single story roof from the ground and jump down again with no damage. [ Watch the Sand Flea jump onto a building roof]

The main development was a bipedal option called Atlas. There have been three generations of Atlas including a version called Petman developed to test protective suits for soldiers and safety workers. The robot built to wear the safety gear a human would wear was able to simulate hours of operation and determine safety, comfort and durability of the suits and then there is Handle, a robot with legs and wheels, is fast and stronger and can jump!

Like many innovations, military objectives provided the funding to advance beyond the proof-of-concept stage and, while still doing work for the military in 2013, Boston Dynamics was acquired by Alphabet’s X division.

Atlas was originally large and very heavy. Each update has improved on the the main systems that go into making an autonomous robot: mobility, sensing and balance, logic and decision making as well as power management.

Atlas didn't shrug, Atlas did the backflip!

Experts for each system work to improve on their part. As a result the latest Atlas is half the weight, stronger and was the star of that video of a robot doing a backflip.

Boston Dynamics is not the only company working on these types of robots, but they are both pioneers and closest to developing robots that can begin testing in the real world scenarios. Their backing from DARPA, then X and, since this, the very powerful Softbank, whose founder is a strong proponent of robotics, is likely to see them become a major player. Last month they were part of the companies demonstrating their work at the Future Investment Initiative.

The next phase is likely to see an acceleration in improvements. The one accelerator is the machine learning applied to the robot parts design. It is incredible that each design looks more and more like the animal or human they seek to replicate, indicating that we are indeed highly evolved and that we are speeding through our own evolution in manufacturing our robot companions. The second element is the artificial intelligence and there, too, we can plot their progress along our own cognitive development. The BBC's documentary - Rise of the Robots - reflects on the incredible progress.

Robots are not only getting more dexterous, they are learning to co-operate. Raffaello D'Andrea, the Da Vinci of drones.

But as we answer some of the tough questions of engineering we are faced with new ones. These don’t test our skill, but rather our wisdom. How should these new machines be treated; like a machine or with some of the respect we should give to farm animals? If they are allowed to do important work like rescue people from a burning building, might they also be allowed to protect soldiers in a war zone by giving them weapons. If they become more mentally sophisticated, should they be afforded some rights too?

Robots are great, but what we get them to do and how we treat them may be another matter.

Seeing an engineer test a robot, by trying to push it over or knock a package out of its hands, did make me feel uneasy about the treatment it was receiving. If we don’t respect them, will we treat them badly and be more inclined to do the same with humans?

The skills needed to create these incredible machines are not the same as the skills to determine how they should be used or treated.

The point of this story is both to marvel at the incredible progress and to highlight that the conversations still needed to manage how this new “species” gets integrated into society is still a long way away.



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