A couple days ago, Boston Dynamics released a video of their SpotMini robot using an extendable arm to turn the handle of the door and open it. The video shows one of Boston Dynamics’ SpotMinis, being obstructed by a door.
Another SpotMini with an attached robotic arm shows up to open the door for its companion and holds it open while the other SpotMini moves through.
The DARPA Robotics Challenge
The new video shows that Boston Dynamics has managed to make quadrupedal robots that are able to overcome one aspect of the DARPA Robotics Challenge. Two years ago, DARPA held a robotics challenge where participating robotics development companies were tasked with creating a humanoid robot that could open a door. Though the task looks easy for us humans, the motions needed to open a door proved to be a challenge for robots.
The SpotMini performs a sophisticated and technically impressive series of motions, including opening the door and using its own foot to hold the door open in the correct way, without being in the way of its friend.
Robots need to be able to navigate and traverse through a world designed by humans for humans. That means being able to do things like open doors and ascend stairs. Robots that are designed to rescue people in emergency scenarios like earthquakes must be able to quickly and effortlessly open a door, so many robotics companies are working on creating bi-pedal, humanoid robots.
Bipedal and Quadrupedal Robots
Humanoid, bipedal robots are quite unstable at the moment, frequently falling over. While robotics engineers are working on the problem, there are other methods of opening doors, instead of using bipedal robots. One of the robots that performed the best at the Robotics Challenge was Chimp, a robot that uses treads instead of limbs. Treads are just more stable than limbs, and similarly, four legs are more stable than two legs. Four-legged robots can more easily withstand being kicked or stumbling over awkward terrain, and they can get themselves up if pushed over.
While some believe robots created to rescue people from emergency scenarios will be humanoid in form, it’s possible that the best robots deployed in rescue situations will have four (or more) limbs.
Engineers are trying a wide array of techniques and designs for robots, unconstrained by the role of evolution in terms of creating robotic creatures. SpotMini has the characteristic backward knee/ankle joint that people associate with Boston dynamics robots, like the famous BigDog, which gives the robot more stability. SpotMini looks like a miniaturized version of the BigDog chassis, designed to navigate small hallways and rooms instead of carrying huge packs of equipment for the military.
SpotMini isn’t very large, as the name implies, being only around 2.5 feet tall and weighing around 66 pounds. SpotMini utilizes an onboard 3-D vision system which scans the environment and helps it use its 17 joints to move in the right direction. The company’s website notes that the SpotMini is small enough to be used for commercial purposes, such as a tool or assistive device in a home or office building.
The Boston Dynamics website reads:
SpotMini is a small four-legged robot that comfortably fits in an office or home… SpotMini is all-electric and can go for about 90 minutes on a charge, depending on what it is doing. SpotMini is the quietest robot we have built.
Boston Dynamics’ Future
The production of robots designed for use in the civilian space is a bit of a change of form for Boston Dynamics, who has been a defense contractor for many years, making robots and robotics products for use on the battlefield or in military support roles.
The company was owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet Inc., until June of last year. After the contract between Alphabet and Boston Dynamics expired the company was sold to Japanese conglomerate SoftBank Group.
Alphabet was rumored to be uneasy with the company’s prominent military role. A public relations staff member for the company was reportedly asked to “distance” Alphabet from a video promoting the company’s robot Atlas. For their part SoftBank Group is excited about working with Boston Dynamics, with the CEO of SoftBank, Masayoshi Son, saying he’s looking forward to supporting the company as it advances “the field of robotics and explores applications that can help make life easier, safer and more fulfilling.”
Not everyone is as enthusiastic about the work Boston Dynamics is doing, however. The video that shows off SpotMini has already attracted a number of comments from people around the Internet, worried that the robot will attack them, or that its development signals an oncoming robot apocalypse. Comments like “This is how we’ll die” or “They’ll hunt in packs” are easy to find on the video. Some robotics experts and robot ethicists are unconcerned, calling the worries hyperbolic in nature.
WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE… oh no wait this is just an opaquely staged product video with some cool tech in it. -every Boston Dynamics clip, ever.
— Kate Darling (@grok_) February 13, 2018
There is a definite sense of hyperbole that surrounds the panic about SpotMini and a robotic uprising, yet the concerns surrounding how to ethically use robotics technology aren’t entirely misplaced either.
The journal Science Robotics recently released their report detailing the 10 grand challenges that the field of robotics will have to grapple with over the next 5 to 10 years. Among these challenges was a concern about “robot ethics and security”. The report says that there’s always the potential that robotics technology could be misused, and that robotics developers must safeguard against this possibility by creating systems which ensure that robot AI always treats humans as an end and never as a means.
In the meantime, another risk to human well being is unemployment and if SpotMini and robots like it begin serving in homes and businesses, many people may find themselves out of work. Reports done by robotics analysts have predicted 400 to 800 million jobs being at risk from AI and robotics. While it isn’t likely that SpotMini will be taking over your job anytime soon, it may benefit our society to begin thinking about how to transition people into a new era dominated by robots and robotic workers.