We all grew up watching science-fiction movies. From 2001: A Space Odyssey to Terminator – most of these movies had one thing in common, robots and AI taking over the world. There’s always been an attraction towards humanoid robots that could fit into workplaces made for humans. Scientists and inventors have been trying to mimic the workings of the human brain for a long time by creating AIs with complex algorithms. This obsession gave birth to the massive robotics industry. Today, we use various types of robots, even though we’re not fully aware that it’s a robot, such as vacuum cleaners.
These robots roam around on their tiny wheels and help perform our daily chores. Not only at home, but we also use robots in other places too. Over the past decade, the global sales volume of industrial robots tripled – 422,000 units in 2018, before decreasing to around 384,000 units in 2020. The tremendous growth in worldwide shipments of industrial robots is largely driven by the automotive and electronics sectors, which accounted for approximately 23 and 31 percent of new installations in 2020, respectively.
Consequently, the prevalence of industrial robots is particularly high in countries with strong automotive and electronics sectors, namely Japan, China, South Korea, Germany, and the United States. In South Korea, there are over 930 robots per 10,000 manufacturing employees, which is seven times more than the world average.
Still, people’s obsession with humanoid robots is growing rapidly, and Boston Dynamics is one of the leading companies that grabbed headlines with the Atlas and Spot. Boston Dynamics has set the bar very high with its robotic creations and set the example of what the future of robotics will look like.
Boston Dynamics: Dreams Of The Future
The fascination surrounding robots is not a new thing. The world saw the first programmable robot “The Unimate” in 1954, and since then scientists and engineers have been constantly trying to make robots as functional as possible. But people all over the world are very skeptical about this advancement in robotics. A survey conducted by Oxford University shows that 34% of people in the U.S. think high-level machine intelligence will have negative effects on humanity. Famous people like Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk have also expressed their concerns regarding this issue.
Despite this back and forth argument, Boston Dynamics has been working hard to innovate on robotics and AI to serve humanity positively, for over 30 years. It expects to become a serial producer of consumer-level robots with advanced capabilities. Their dream is to roll out a new robot every three to five years, targeting new industries every time. Will this constant innovation to integrate AI into robots cause harm in the future? To answer that, first we need to understand how Boston Dynamics has created its legacy throughout the years and what their future plan is.
Boston Dynamics History
Boston Dynamics was founded by Marc Raibert in 1992. They were funded by the US military and Marines, where they provided interactive 3D computer software for realistic human simulations. A few years later, Boston Dynamics started to make physical robots for the military. This company has gone through many handovers, and these changes weren’t smooth. Google X was the first one to acquire the company in 2013. It was costing Google $50 million every year, and the relationship didn’t last very long, because the result of this collaboration was not as successful as Google hoped it would be. Google later sold the company to Softbank in 2017. But in late 2020, Hyundai Motor Group (HMG) acquired an 80% stake in the company, and a few months later HMG took over the controlling stakes and allowed them to work autonomously. Since then, Boston Dynamics has continued to work steadily.
Over the years, they’ve produced many robots to show their potential. LS3 was the first concept project to have a physical form. This robot was capable of carrying military equipment in a useful way. Other early creations like the ‘BigDog’ could also carry a heavy payload in different conditions and the ‘Cheetah’ could reach a top speed of 28.3 mph. Boston’s first humanoid robot was the ‘Atlas’, which was created to test the special clothing worn by the US soldiers for protection against chemical warfare agents. All these prototypes and concept robots are the backbone of Boston Dynamics’s current production line. Let’s take a look at what products are currently available in the market.
The Spot is the first commercial product from Boston Dynamics that was available for sale in 2020. It’s often compared to a dog because of its size and design. It’s the world’s most advanced four-legged walking robot, which can reach up to a top speed of 3 mph and can operate for 90 minutes while fully charged. Spot has 5 stereo cameras surrounding its body, and with those cameras, it can do colorful mapping with improved depth data and sharper images.
It is particularly useful for industrial and scientific applications, and the body can accommodate custom payloads on its back. The back also has everything from advanced sensors to upgraded cameras with laser scanners. Users can control the robot via tablet controllers. The robot and controller both are weatherproofed, and it has improved integration between its vision system and balance. So, Spot can be operated in the harshest and most remote areas.
Stretch is a mobile robot that can load and unload trailers and containers. Boston Dynamics said, with Stretch, they’re aiming to improve safety in one of the most physically demanding jobs in the warehouses. It’s 7-DOF (Degree of Freedom) arm has a long reach and large workspace, which allows Stretch to reach a truck or trailer. It has a powerful custom vacuum gripper that is able to handle up to 50 lbs. at max, regardless of the package’s shape and size.
Stretch uses a very advanced AI system that can sort boxes in real-time, without any prior knowledge of their shapes and any pre-programmed SKU (Stock Keeping Unit) numbers. With the built-in high-capacity battery, Stretch can work through a full shift and it can be connected to a direct power source for continuous operation.
DHL is the first customer of Stretch, who ordered $15 million worth of robots to automate their warehouses in North America. This product is a massive success for Boston Dynamics and all the installations for 2022 were sold out within a few months.
Are Robotics And Artificial Intelligence The Future of Mankind?
The world’s smartest human-like robot – Ameca said that robots are here to serve and help humanity, not to replace them. We also can’t deny the fact that robots have the potential to improve our quality of life and we’re already using many AI-driven robots in our day-to-day life. From our smartphones to space exploration, there are robotics and AI everywhere. They’re playing pivotal roles in solving many of the real-world’s most pressing problems like healthcare, agriculture, smart homes, climate change, and so on. In our regular household works, robots such as cooking bots, lawn-mowers, or vacuum cleaners have effectively replaced humans.
There are some robots that can replace your housemaid, even your roommate too! Amazon introduced Astro, a virtual assistant that can follow a person from room to room. It’s like your personal assistant who can monitor house security and take remote care of any elderly person. Or you can get your very own pet Luna, who’ll remind you of Wall-E. With its 2.4-inch LCD screen Luna can show a variety of emotions. It can fetch a ball for you, chase a laser pointer, follow you around, and do tricks like any other normal pet. From the professional level to personal enjoyment, robots are everywhere and in many sectors robots have achieved unbelievable results. But every coin has two sides and robots are not an exception.
Strengths And Threats
There are many fields where robots are regularly used for better efficiency and safety. Space exploration is a field in which robots are heavily involved. In recent years, NASA launched Perseverance on Mars, a car-sized rover. As of December 4th, 2022, it’s been active on Mars for 636 Sols (Solar day on Mars). Its goal is to identify Martian environments, seek out evidence of former microbial life, and test oxygen production from the atmosphere to prepare for future crewed missions.
Then during the pandemic, we saw the rise of robots in the manufacturing and medical sector. Robots are immune to diseases, so there’s no need to worry about their safety, they don’t need breaks, and can perform as the controller wants them to. This means less casualty and more efficiency. Modern robots can even work autonomously, and through machine learning, they can adjust or upgrade themselves and become more useful. On paper, this is a huge success for humanity, but there’s a gray line between how good they can become gradually to think freely and how they can cause damage by doing so.
Last November 2022, a Tesla car related accident in south China, caused two deaths and three injuries. The driver was trying to park the car when suddenly lost control and the Model Y traveled at a speed of 150 kph for 2 kilometers. A few years back Microsoft launched an AI chatbot, Tay, that was texting offensive and racist tweets from its official Twitter account from its launch day. Microsoft couldn’t fix the issue properly, and they had to shut down the whole project and replace Tay with another AI bot. There are plenty more examples of how AI has caused severe damage in today’s world. If we’re talking about a humanoid robot with artificial intelligence, we can sense a greater threat. Already in many warehouses and factories, machines have replaced humans, causing unemployment. The way robots and AI technology are improving, things can get really messy if not monitored properly.
It’s not the end of the world, the way biased media and Hollywood movies are portraying it to be. Humanity is still very much in control and robots are just tools to ease problems and provide efficiency. But the robot industry is growing rapidly. So, these upgrades and usage should be taken in a safer approach. In October 2022, Hyundai and 5 other major robotics manufacturers signed a pledge saying they would not support any weaponization of their robotic creations.
This means makers are also acknowledging the threats and acting accordingly. For more than 30 years, Boston Dynamics has been trying to innovate AI robots to make them useful. Tesla also joined the game with their very own Tesla Bot a few months ago. Big companies like Amazon and Honda are also investing in this industry to claim their own place in the foreseeable future.
So, whether we embrace these robots or resist them, they’re here to stay and will continue to play an increasingly important role in every aspect of our lives.
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