Robots aren’t just for factories any more. The world’s robot manufacturers, more of whom pop up every year, have ambitious plans to make robots useful for a seemingly endless variety of applications. One of the top companies who are leaders in this kind of innovation is Boston Dynamics, which produces a breathtaking variety of robots and has partnered with organizations such as DARPA, the US Army, Navy and Marine Corps and the Sony Corporation to create and test the most advanced autonomous robots on the planet.
One example is Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot, an agile, anthropomorphic robot designed to operate over rough terrain and to help soldiers carry gear. The robot walks bipedally so that it can manipulate its environment with its upper limbs. It has articulated, sensate hands and will be able to use tools designed for humans. However, the company is moving away from military robots since the loss of its contract for the LS3 ‘Big Dog’, which essentially acts as a pack mule, has enough fuel for a 20-mile mission lasting 24 hours, and automatically follows its leader using computer vision – but was dismissed as unviable on the battlefield for being too loud.
Luckily, Boston Dynamics also makes robots that are more focused on research into human and animal movement, like the LittleDog robot, which is used at leading universities like MIT, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon. LittleDog’s four legs are each powered by three electric motors, and the robot can perform climbing and dynamic locomotion gaits for up to 30 minutes. And the company’s Cheetah robot is the fastest legged robot in the world, surpassing 29 mph.
A Clever Segway
But perhaps Boston Dynamics needs to watch out for some competition. Recently, Segway, the company that makes the iconic personal transportation device, was taken over by Chinese company Ninebot. There are many reasons why Segway didn’t really catch on, despite being easy to use, fairly reliable, and relatively inexpensive when you account for all the technology packed into it. Mostly, experts speculate that public inertia and the lack of any real demand for the technology caused the problems; people were satisfied by their current modes of transportation, and didn’t feel the need to shell out $6000 for something different.
Ninebot’s takeover of the struggling company is not all that surprising. Founded only four years ago, it quickly gained strength and stature and became a major mainstream competitor to Segway. The company’s real prize in this takeover is the acquisition of more than 400 patents related to personal transportation devices that have been filed by Segway. Given their position in the Chinese market, and the fact that the Chinese government is radically restructuring the entire nation’s transportation system from the ground up, the move was pretty much a no-brainer.
Does a Robot Dream of a Human Job?
The purchase of Segway by Ninebot may not be particularly significant on its own, but it is a signal of intent, showing that China is taking this brand new field very seriously. And if China’s robotics technology catches up to the likes of Boston Dynamics, then a huge variety of robots flooding the market will be the result. This basically puts China in one corner of the ‘ring’ and the West on the opposing side. While this competition is all well and good, the losers might just be people whose jobs will eventually be replaced by robots who do not require supervision and will be able to do everything a human can do and more. For example, Google’s driverless cars are already a reality and have been in testing for several years now. And that’s the thing: robots in factories replaced human muscle, but now robots are getting to the point where they can replace human brains, and that’s very difficult to adapt to. The cutting edge of artificial intelligence today is ‘deep learning’, wherein a program can teach itself how to perform a task rather than writing lines of code.
Of course, humans will be still required in some capacity, workers will need to have a well rounded education in the field of technology from electromechanical and electronics technicians to automation specialists… at least until the robots work out how to do this themselves. In the meantime, it’s best to be prepared for the huge change the world is going to undergo in the next few decades. What will happen to society when the vast majority of jobs are undertaken by robots? Will we enter a new utopian era or devolve into a dystopian hell? Only time will tell.