The purpose of this IAE Blog entry is to call your attention to some of today’s robots. I was amazed by some of the materials I read recently.
The talk and the videos all focus on robots being developed by Boston Dynamics, a company founded in 1992 by Marc Raibert, a MIT graduate. He is still the President of the company, although the company is currently owned by Japan's SoftBank Group. Japan is particularly concerned about providing personal health care for its aging population, and is exploring the use of robots as one possible approach to meeting this growing need.
I think that most people understand robotic equipment doing manufacturing tasks in factories, or working with order fulfillment in warehouses. But, many people have less insight into robots that might serve as personal helpers to the elderly, invalids, and other people needing a high level of personal care.
The recent TED Talk by Marc Raibert discusses the problems in developing mobile, agile robots and the progress being made by Boston Dynamics (Raibert, April, 2017). Here is a brief summary of his presentation:
The company has been developing a wide range of advanced robots that can gallop like a cheetah, negotiate 10 inches of snow, walk upright on two legs, and even open doors and deliver packages. Join Raibert for a live demo of SpotMini, a nimble robot that maps the space around it, handles objects, climbs stairs—and could soon be helping you out around the house.
Spot: A Four-legged Robot
In his talk, Raibert is clearly proud to show off Spot, a four-legged robot whose agility mimics that of a real dog. The first picture shows the robot Spot and a small dog playfully interacting. The second shows Spot’s mobile arm with a grabber that vaguely looks like a head/face.
I wonder how long it will be before I enter a grocery store and see that Spot-like robots have replaced grocery carts! As I walk through the grocery store, I give verbal commands to my robot. It grabs products off the shelves, scans their bar codes, places them in its storage rack, and provides me with a running total of how much I have spent so far. Of course, it knows the location of every item in the store, so I never have to prowl up and down the aisles looking for a particular item. Or, consider what a human delivery person does that a robot may soon be able to do as well (or even better?).
Atlas: A Two-legged Humanoid-like Robot
I found the two-legged (somewhat humanoid-like) robot developed by Boston Dynamics to be even more impressive. The robot is about the size and weight of an average man. The four pictures below are taken from a short video (Boston Dynamics, 11/16/2017). The robot first does some walking and jumping, ending up on the ground facing a box that is about three feet high. It jumps onto this box (first picture), then jumps straight up and spins so it is facing the opposite direction (second picture). The third picture shows it in the air half-way through a back flip, and the fourth shows a successful landing! (Hmm. The robot lands on a pad that is well above the floor level.)
The robots pictured are still under development, and currently quite expensive to produce. Boston Dynamics and many other companies visualize potential markets for hundreds of thousands of such robots.
As an example of one potential market, consider a patient who needs 24/7 care provided by a human. What aspects of this care might be provided by a walking, talking, agile robot?
Here is a possible example. One patient currently requires three human caregivers per day, each working an 8-hour shift (24 human hours per patient per day). Actually, the situation is more complex, as the human worker needs time off for breaks and a meal. In a future scenario, perhaps there is one robot per patient, with one human supervisor for every three patients, to provide the same level of service. That is, there is 24/7 human supervision of three robots, with the humans “on call” as needed by the robots and patients. The goal in this research and development area is to provide just as good or even better care for the patients, but at less cost.
In terms of robots doing jobs previously done by or currently being done by people, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” The capabilities of robots will continue to be improved. In more and more work situations, robots will prove to be more cost-effective than human labor. This is, of course, dependent on what humans are being paid. In high-wage countries such as the United States, it is more cost effective to replace workers with robots than it is in low-wage countries.
At the current time, we have a nearly record high level of employment in the United States. However, the number of high-paying “middle class” jobs has been declining. A significant reason for this decline is computerized automation, with the remaining workers becoming more productive because of the computerized tools now routinely being used.
What the future holds in terms of most people having the level of income needed to support a decent quality of life is currently unclear. As our country is able to produce an increasing amount of goods and services using fewer human workers, how will this “wealth” be distributed?
What is clear is that a good modern education includes learning to work with computer aids to solve problems and accomplish tasks. This involves one’s developing the human knowledge and skills that differentiate us from robots.
References and Resources
Boston Dynamics (2017). Changing your idea of what robots can do. Retrieved 11/18/2017 from https://www.bostondynamics.com/. This website includes two videos.
Boston Dynamics (11/16/2017). What’s new, Atlas? (Video, 0:54.) Retrieved 11/17/2017 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRj34o4hN4I&utm_source=MIT+Technology+Review&utm_campaign=86b83d18cf-The_Download&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_997ed6f472-86b83d18cf-154405105. Atlas is a humanoid-like robot.
Mind-blowing Video (2017). Amazon warehouse robots. (Video, 3:54.) Retrieved 11/18/2017 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLVCGEmkJs0. A highly automated warehouse and shipment center.
Raibert, M. (April, 2017). Meet Spot, the robot dog that can run, hop, and open doors. TED Talks. (Video, 13:56.) Retrieved 11/18/2017 from https://www.ted.com/talks/marc_raibert_meet_spot_the_robot_dog_that_can_run_hop_and_open_doors#t-85189.
Spot Robot (n.d.). Full-sized, four-legged robot. (Video, 2:15.) Retrieved 11/22/20 from https://www.bostondynamics.com/.
TechZone (4/15/2017). Eight advanced robot animals you need to see. (Video, 10:10.) Retrieved 11/23/2017 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oqq5tgday_w.