Robotics company Boston Dynamics (BD) have an excellent knack of releasing films of their creations’ latest and greatest abilities… Think back-flipping humanoids or ones that refuse to be pushed over by a human with a stick. The internet usually follows suit by collectively freaking out about the Terminator-style Robotapocalypse just around the corner.
The good news is: there’s a lot more behind this than initially meets the paranoid eye. From Margins of Error to questions of True Autonomy, BD has become a great self-publicist precisely because their robots are designed to be as human-like (or dog-like) as possible. This causes us to make associations about the life-likeness of the machines, ignoring some glaring gaps between perception and reality. Let’s debunk a little the scale of the actual threat here.
First, BD don’t behave like most of their contemporary robotics research competitors, who are mostly in academia and far more open about what theyre up to. BD are privately owned (until last year by Google X, but now by Japan’s Softbank.), and were independent for the 20 years preceding the Google purchase. The irony is that although the company aspires to be more commercial than academic, they still don’t have any products in the market. Some speculate that this was behind Google offloading the company. BD play their secrecy to their advantage.
Next, while most manufacturing robots, like the enormous machines that construct Telsa cars work in sub-mm accuracy, BD robots have much greater margins of error because they’re far more worried about the functional accuracy of simply NOT falling over, or being able to pick themselves up. This type of dynamic doesn’t have to worry about mm’s of accuracy. BD robots function with MUCH wider margins of error.
Nor are they fully autonomous. There’s a much bigger gulf between where we are today, and machines which can freely roam on their own processing power and power supply. There is frequently a human in the background controlling and fine-tuning the robots movements and actions. They don’t appear in the films…
Finally, its about appreciating BD’s motivations. They continue to forge ahead into the field of autonomous robots which increasingly resemble and attempt to exceed the capabilities of their human creators. Maintaining their ‘wow’ factor online, with their daring and surprising short films is all part of BD’s strategy to be the ‘go to’ collaborator or supplier for flexible robots with life-like abilities.
Sooner of later one of their models will convince a client (most likely in the military, sadly) that BD offers the best solution in comparison to the human or animal option. A bit like Fusion Power, this day always seems to be years in the future… until suddenly, one day, it’s not…