Our Robot Friends

We live in an era of unprecedented change. My grandparents’ generation saw the rise of the automobile. My parents’ generation saw the rise of space travel. My generation saw the rise of the digital world and social technology. The current generation is seeing the rise of the robots.

A bit over two years ago I posted An Uprising of Robots. (We haven’t picked a collective noun for robots, but my submissions are an uprising of and a clank of.) That post featured Atlas, the Boston Dynamics humanoid robot, and Spot, the four-legged “dog” robot (seen in the image here).

Since I posted that, Spot has become a hit on YouTube and has entered the work force, so here’s a Wednesday Wow starring Spot, the $75,000 robot dog.

I don’t have much to say about all this (other than Wow! and I want one!!), but I thought I’d share some fun videos with you so you can get to know our eventual robot masters. They are all very short videos, so don’t be shy about watching them.

As you’ll see below, Spot is already on the job and working hard, but the folks at Boston Dynamics have been having a lot of fun teaching Spot to dance.

And lip sync to Mick Jagger:

Just imagine the hours that went into defining all those moves! (“What did you do at work today, dear?” “I programmed a robot dog to lip sync to the Rolling Stones!” Nice work, if you can get it!)

Here’s another one (with a hint of Asian flavor):

Early on, Boston Dynamics posted a video showing Spot trying to open a door despite human interference. Many commented on its Terminator-like determination, and clearly people have both legitimate and exaggerated concerns about robots.

This next video seems designed to sooth fears about robots in the workplace. It’s actually a pretty charming video. Very well done, and it’s the one that inspired this post.

If you only watch one of these videos, watch this one:

“Robots: Our plastic pal who’s fun to be with!”

I get such a kick out of Murray!

That video was fictional, of course, but here’s one that isn’t:

That is so cool! It well communicates the utility and value of robots such as Spot.

Here’s one that’s essentially a commercial, but it also illustrates why Spot is capturing the hearts of viewers and businesspeople:

Given what can be done with image processing, having Spot patrolling the physical plant is a dream come true for managers (and science fiction fans).

They’ve tested these units to withstand cold, heat, water, and even some amount of radiation. A major selling point is the ability to send a $75,000 robot into dangerous situations that might threaten a human life (which usually retails for more).

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I read that the NYPD was planning to use an uprising of Spot robots for patrolling the city streets, but citizen feedback quashed the idea. A lot of people aren’t ready to see robots running around in public, and at least some of those concerns are legitimate.

The problem with robots, of course, is that they are powerful and driven by software that makes them semi-autonomous. The former makes them potentially dangerous (like cars are), and the latter makes them capable of unexpected and uncontrolled action.

At this level, the software controlling these has elements that are goal driven. The unit has capabilities and strategies it assembles and leverages to accomplish its goals. We often speak of terminal goals and operational goals, the former being the desired end result and the latter a series of steps to accomplish it.

A terminal goal might be for Spot to walk around the plant inspecting various gauges and sending an alert if any are out of operational specification. Many operational goals arise in achieving that terminal goal, from the trivial “walk up these stairs” to the far more serious “don’t walk into or over humans”.

The problem is twofold: Firstly, it’s hard to be certain that all the necessary protective operational goals have been thought of and programmed in. Secondly, it can hard to program them as software. Much of what we know about interacting in public took years of experience to learn.

And finally, when has software ever been written without bugs? That alone should give us some pause when it comes to autonomous robots.

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So, there are cautions and precautions, and we don’t want to run into this blindly, but I think Spot is pretty awesome. I hope I see one somewhere someday.

And I wish I had $75,000 to spend on having one of my own! How cool would that be?

I’ll leave you with this last dance video that Boston Dynamics released a year ago. I’m in awe of the work that had to have gone into this, and I’m very impressed by the staging and choreography. Pay attention to how the camera progressively reveals more and more robots. Nicely done! Enjoy:

Stay dancing, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

4 responses to “Our Robot Friends

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I wonder if they’re cheaper by the dozen, because I really want a fleet of Spot robots!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I’ve been wondering a while what TV show or movie would use a bunch of Spot robots (or maybe Atlas robots). It’s only a matter of time.

  • diotimasladder

    I dunno. If I saw Spot patrolling the streets, I’d probably scream and run the other way. I do like the video with side by side Mick Jagger video, though.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Yeah, that was a lot of fun! They’ve done several videos now with music and dancing robots. I think they’re deliberately trying to get people to smile at the idea of robots, even be fond of them. Having a robot “dog” might be part of that. Imagine if it was a robot bug or spider. (Did you ever see Minority Report? Robot spiders. Armed robot spiders!)

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