The renowned robot-maker Boston Dynamics released a new, and likely highly produced, video on Monday of its latest robot “dog,” the SpotMini. From the looks of it, it’s an incredible piece of machinery with remarkably lifelike movements, showing a level of dynamism and coordination between its body and software that I’ve never seen before, and it certainly left some people at least slightly worried that we’re nearing a future in which robots will be able to let themselves out of the lab.
In the video, a little robot dog prances over to a door, only to realize it has no hands and can’t open it. A few seconds later, a larger Spot robot dog that has an articulated arm with a grabber for a hand where its head should be emerges from around a corner. The bigger Spot uses its grabber to grasp the door handle and begins to pull the door toward itself. The robot then props the door open with its foot, which frees its arm to stretch inside the door and push it open. It then holds it open as it waits for its friend to go through before following behind, all the while holding the door open with its arm as its body takes a turn and walks forward. What’s impressive here is that the robot isn’t just agile enough to grab a door handle without either missing it by knocking on the door or grabbing the air, it’s also strong enough to pull it open and leverage its own weight to keep it open.
Assuming the robot isn’t completely remote controlled by an operator with exceptional motor skills, Spot probably had to be able to “see” the door handle, using some array of cameras and sensors, so it would know exactly where to place its claw and subsequently its foot to prop open the door, which shows a keen understanding of what its body is capable of. Most robots can’t do this; this one can.
Computer vision in robotics is an area that’s been making rapid advancements in recent years, but it’s a tough nut to crack. In e-commerce logistics, for example, bin picking and picking things off a shelf of varied weights, colors, and sizes have been particularly challenging tasks for robots, and most robots on the warehouse floor act more like smart pallets that can move heavy boxes without banging into anyone’s shins or another shelf.
While Boston Dynamics isn’t showcasing a robot that can distinguish between two similarly shaped items on a shelf and pick the right one without knocking over everything else next to it, the robot dog in the video obviously knows how to use its grabber with an impressive level of precision and exert the right amount of force to complete its task.
At this point, there’s really no telling how a robot dog like Spot could be used beyond a military application—perhaps to disarm or dispose of an explosive, or for some other task that is unsafe for humans. Before it was acquired by Google in 2013, Boston Dynamics primarily operated on research contracts from the military. Its famous humanoid robot ATLAS was funded by DARPA, the military’s experimental research arm, as was an early iteration of its quadruped robot, Big Dog. Last year, Google sold Boston Dynamics to the Japanese tech firm SoftBank, adding to the company’s already impressive robotics roster. In 2012, SoftBank acquired a majority stake in the robotics company Alderban, which makes the humanoid robot Pepper that’s supposed to be used in customer service settings. (I interacted with Pepper for not the first time at the CES technology show this year, and I wasn’t impressed.)
At TED 2017, Boston Dynamics founder and CEO Marc Raibert showed a video of its Spot robot delivering packages to people’s doors in Boston, explaining that one application for his mechanized dog might be package delivery. “We’ve been taking our robot to our employees’ homes to see whether we could get in the various access ways,” Raibert said onstage. “We’re doing very well—about 70 percent of the way.” The robot’s clean casing will certainly go a long way in making that future more tenable, since the last thing anyone wants to knock on their door is a four-legged terminator.