Before the word “artificial intelligence” became popular recently, people referred to AI, often referred to as some kind of robot. Boston Dynamics is one of the best-known companies in robotics, thanks in large part to videos released by the company. Marc Raibert, CEO of Boston Dynamics, spoke to the media about the company’s various topics at the 2019 Cyber Summit.
Rebert talks about the three robots Boston Dynamics currently focuses on, namely Spot today, Handle for Tomorrow and Atlas for the future. In the interview, he also discussed current customers, potential applications, artificial intelligence, computer simulation and, of course, the hype of video that went viral on video platforms.
Graphic: Boston Power’s Spot Robot
For Mr. Leibert, the so-called “today” refers to a period of time that lasts until the next year or so. Spot is called today’s robot because Boston Dynamics began shipping Spot to early users six weeks ago. Boston Dynamics wants Spot to be a platform, which Mr. Leibert has repeatedly called “Android in The Robot.”
Spot, which weighs about 28 kilograms, is “not an applied robot for a definite purpose,” Mr. Leibert said. “Users can add hardware loads and configure software that is compatible with the Spot API. In fact, Boston Dynamics’ main goal at the annual Web Summit was to encourage attendees to develop hardware and software for Spot. Boston Dynamics has equipped Spot with robotic arms, wireless receivers, cameras and lidar, but other companies are also developing their own sensors.
Spot uses obstacle detection cameras to detect railings and steps to get up and down stairs. It also has an automatic navigation system that can traverse a variety of complex terrain. Spot can be manipulated by humans, but on-board computers can control leg movements and balance. Spot’s speed is about 5 kilometers per hour, the same speed as human walking. It has a camera on both the front and back, helping to navigate and move automatically in all directions. Spot has different gait, can be turned in place, and has a “chicken head” mode. The “chicken head” mode means that Spot can separate the movement of the robotic arm from the movement of the body, just as many animals can keep certain parts stable while moving in other parts of the body.
Rent first and sell later
Boston Dynamics plans to build 1,000 Spot robots, many of which have already been shipped. The company expects to meet the manufacturing target by mid-2020.
“Companies don’t buy one, usually a couple,” Mr. Rebert points out. He added, “Or, I think up to five – almost.” We have two ways. One is that we deliver robots, we train, we help them succeed. We want these people to succeed because it will help build the market. Walking robots are not yet in the emerging market. We’re working hard, so this year we’re going to help build this market. We can even add some features if the customer needs it. Although, it is clear that this balances resources, and that is an opportunity that we have identified. The other way is to sell directly, but we provide a lot less help and support. ”
In fact, Boston Dynamics hasn’t actually sold Spot yet. “Right now, we’re renting them out,” Rebert said. “I think it’s more acceptable at an early stage. We will start selling them in the near future, but now we are renting them out. This is the first generation of products. I’m sure there will be something that needs to be worked out. We’ll see how the customers react. So far, we have had great success. Our internal robots may be rougher than they are, and our job is to identify their weaknesses and correct them. ”
Mr. Rebert would not disclose the price of the Spot robot. But he says the current rent is “thousands of dollars a month”. He added that “every deal varies from person to person” and involves how many robots a company rents, how long it will be leased, and so on.
Last week Boston Dynamics released its latest Spot software, which adds more automated navigation. “When I’m talking about automated navigation, you can manipulate a robot through a site, have the robot write down the map, and then tell it, ‘I want you to go down this road.'” “It can be done at once or on a regular basis. You can also tell it to collect data from an external or built-in camera. Rebert again stressed that Spot is a platform that receives updates.
Spot for Business
Industrial robots tend to be stationary. Because Spot can move and extend the robotic arm, Boston Dynamics expects Spot to be a more efficient mobile operating platform. Until now, the company has been uninterested in making robots that interact with humans, and all of its robots have focused on tasks that humans themselves cannot, should or cannot accomplish. Boston Dynamics developed robots that are neither domestic nor used in public places.
“The safety of robots depends on keeping them reasonably away from humans, ” Reibert said. “Or let people use robots with care.” ”
As a result, Boston Dynamics only offers out-of-stock businesses. The company is currently not interested in making them available to developers, enthusiasts or individuals.
“We’re also looking for businesses that are interested in developing applications,” Explains Rebert. “For example, we are working with a construction company that is already selling scanning technology for progress measurement. They have staff with sensors, but we are working with them to get robots to carry sensors. Having a robot has many advantages, it doesn’t need a lot of people. Some construction companies have thousands of simultaneous construction sites that they want to monitor progress, but they have limited capacity. ”
In the next year, Mr. Rebert says, the most likely place to find Spot could be warehouses, construction sites, or industrial facilities. It will happen not only in the United States, but also in Japan. Mr. Leibert confirmed that Spot robots are being shipped around the world.
Robots can use scanners or 360-degree cameras to collect data with greater precision, so humans don’t have to risk endangering lives. In some parts of the power distribution company, for example, people are not allowed to enter after power is electrified and inspections are not possible. Boston Dynamics has sent some Spots to these places, but it’s still in beta.
Refineries are also a typical use case for Spot because of the amount of data collection and inspection work that needs to be done. Spot, who has worked at a BP refinery, a power plant and a construction site, can save money by collecting 3D scans and data on a regular basis.
Spot also has ambitions to become an entertainment robot; Boston Dynamics has tested interest in getting people to work with Spot. This allows users to control the real thing, not the virtual characters in video games. The company also works with Cirque du Soleil to assess how humans and robots perform in collaboration.
Application of the police and the army
Should law enforcement and the military use artificial intelligence and robots? Boston Dynamics said it would accept such customers, but there were some rules.
“We have limited cooperation with the police,” Mr Reibert said. What do they do when they don’t know what’s going on on the ground? Send the robot in. They are learning, and we are learning. But it’s all coming. ”
A few months ago, on a flight from Boston to California, Mr. Leibert used in-flight Wi-Fi to manipulate robots far beyond the Chicago lab. This proves that remote control robot is feasible. Rebert points out that remote operations are especially useful for police because they don’t care about the automation of robots, they only care about mobility.
“So we have a lot of technology to operate robots remotely, ” Says Rebert. “In fact, the robot has some on-board intelligence that balances, maneuvers and avoids obstacles, which means it’s easier to operate. You don’t have to worry about which leg the robot is moving. We are also developing remote manipulation techniques. You can see a screen that shows the surroundings through the robot’s camera, pointing to something. You can manipulate the robot to go there, or pick up that thing. So it takes advantage of local information, and then you can operate remotely. ”
The media also asked boston power if there were military customers. After all, Boston Dynamics’ original BigDog was a four-legged robot designed for the U.S. military.
“We don’t have it yet, but we may,” Rebert said. “We’re trying to focus on hazard avoidance, bomb detection, and so on. There are provisions in our contract that state that robots cannot be armed. Robots are not allowed to hurt or intimidate others. They are not soldiers. Military users can do many things with robots: getting information, dealing with dangerous environments, and so on. ”
Illustration: Boston Power’s Handle Robot
For Leibert, “tomorrow” means about a year and a half later in 2021. The current Handle humanoid robot is still in the prototype stage, using a visual system to locate the target object and identify the required boxes in a pile of boxes.
“In about 18 months, we’ve got a robot that can work in a warehouse,” Mr. Leibert said. The goods were loaded into trucks, unloaded, stacked on pallets, loaded on to trucks, transported to retail stores and then unboxed for sale. ”
Most of the work of putting cartons in code is not automated, it is a heavy, monotonous, unpleasant work. Boston Dynamics sees a huge opportunity to automate with its mobile-controlled robots. “So we have a robot whose goal in life is to be able to see, pick up and put a cardboard box in place. ”
Boston Dynamics has previously launched pick storage robot, a robotic arm. And Handle seems to be a mobile version of Pick. “It’s fun. I rarely talk about Pick, but we’re also selling Pick robots. It is fixed in one place and is designed to be coded to place boxes. They all now use the same vision system. Pick has a 3D vision system that can see the box and the pallet. We now have Handle so that the robot can see where the box is in the environment. It can observe the environment, pick up the box it wants, go somewhere else, and put it with other boxes. ”
Illustration: Boston Power’s Pick Robot
Handle is coming, but Spot is still the focus. When asked how much boston power has put into spot robots, Mr. Rebert said it’s about 50 percent. But this will soon be transferred to the Handle robot.
“I think we’re spending more of our energy on Spot robots, ” Says Mr. Rebert. “We produce abroad, but we manage all the production processes. This is the first time we have produced more than five large-scale products. Everything was a prototype before. There are a lot of processes involved in making 1000, so it’s a completely different “beast.” Our plan is to build the Handle robot in a year and a half’ time using the talent and skills we have acquired from the production of Spot robots. ”
Ultimately, Boston Dynamics hopes to create robots with a variety of perception systems, drive systems, planning systems, and more.
Atlas of the Future
Illustration: Boston Power’s Atlas Robot
For Leibert, “future” means “eternal development”. Atlas is a “future” robot because it is always in the prototype stage. So will Atlas ship?
“I don’t think so, ” Mr. Rebert admits. “Honestly, Handle is a descendant of Atlas. Because we used Atlas to carry boxes, we said, ‘So what’s more effective and cheaper?’ So you have to look at Handle, it’s like a human-like Atlas, but simpler, less freedom, which means less cost. We are developing a producted Handle robot. ”
Atlas is expensive and picky and requires a special team to keep it running. Still, Atlas’s performance is higher than any other robot the company has developed. Atlas is a Boston Dynamics research project: the company develops new technologies in Atlas and then applies some of them to its own products at some point.
“I think it’s our “racing,” ” Mr. Leibert said. All big car companies have their own fleets. They can be exciting. They create new technologies, they’re very expensive and they’re very picky. This is Atlas. ”
Boston Dynamics uses Atlas to develop machine learning and optimization techniques for controlling complex behavior, as well as new hardware. In fact, Boston Dynamics has done as much work and developed dedicated software for Atlas.
The latest Atlas humanoid robot weighs 75 kg and is equipped with a hydraulic power unit weighing about 5 kg, which can generate up to 5 kilowatts of power when the robot is moving. It also has a pair of 3D printed legs with hydraulic passages, valves, space frames, flow, custom lightweight components and more.
Recently, Boston Dynamics was trying to get Atlas to perform some basic gymnastics. The goal, Says Mr. Rebert, is to develop optimization techniques for rapid behavior.
Artificial Intelligence and Simulation
How does Boston Dynamics use artificial intelligence in its robots? Rebert likes to divide artificial intelligence into two different types that are most relevant to his company: sporty artificial intelligence is the equivalent of manipulating our bodies, such as standing, walking, climbing, bypassing obstacles, and so on. Academic artificial intelligence is the equivalent of how we plan in our minds. Boston Dynamics focuses on the former.
“I split artificial intelligence into two parts. I call it sporty artificial intelligence and academic artificial intelligence. We are all experts in artificial intelligence. This means that humans and animals are smart in controlling the body, managing energy use in the body, receiving information about the world around them, and reacting to obstacles or opponents. There’s another kind of artificial intelligence, you make a plan and then execute it. This is why most of the artificial intelligence now works in a higher level of abstract world. You don’t interact with the real world in real time, you just abstract the world. But we’re mainly focused on sports. But I think if you do a good job in the exercise section, you can make it easier for advanced aI to interact. ”
In other words, if robots have been taught how to stand, walk, and navigate, it is much easier to guide the robot through a task. But Boston Dynamics isn’t just a sporty artificial intelligence.
“We’re doing some low-end work on academic artificial intelligence. For example, in our warehouse robot, our system knows that we must have a shipping board. We need the box above before we can make planning arrangements. But it all happens in a world of good control. “It doesn’t solve the uncertainty of the world,” Rebert said. ”
When developing robots, one way to avoid world complexity is to train them in computer simulations. That’s what Boston Dynamics did.
“We’ve done a lot of work on simulation. I think for many people in the aia world, simulation is good enough as a final learning device. For the physics experiments we do, we always combine the physics experiments and simulations of real robots. The two are complementary. ”
The physical world is still much better for Boston Dynamics than the real world, but simulation has the advantage of cost savings.
“If you have a developer who only works in a simulation environment, they have limited work to do, ” says Mr Rebert. If someone has done a job as a physical robot, they will be more effective in simulation. Because they know what constraints are, what parts of the model are good and which are bad, making simulation faster and less costly. ”
On the face of it, Boston Dynamics seems to have an experienced PR team. But Mr. Rebert revealed that the company actually doesn’t have a real PR department. Even so, the videoreleased by Boston Dynamics has gone viral online.
“We built a brand through YouTube, and it’s fun,” Says Rebert. “It’s great for the company. We don’t need to introduce ourselves from scratch, and the cost is low. We are a big fan of robots. We don’t just focus on money-making VCs supporting companies. We do so because the challenge is to understand that humans and animals can live in this world. This is a huge challenge. Commercialization is one of our long-term goals in creating machines that can meet this challenge. It’s really fun to put the results in the hands of others and it’s a testing way for what we’re doing, and we’re excited. ”
In short, “when you do this kind of work, you want to show people what you’re doing, and I think that’s the real motivation,” Rebert said.
Some have criticized Boston Dynamics’ video for not showing whether someone is controlling the robot or having any technical details.
“In the early days, we showed robots to accomplish a variety of tasks. Some people think they are completely automated, but they are not. Although there are many actions that are done automatically, there is a control person on site. We just want to show video that we’ve created leg-spinners that can climb muddy hills, and that’s the message we want to get. We never thought anyone would ask us to describe all the situations. We’ve recently added more words to our videos to describe the characteristics of robots, but we don’t want to be academic papers. People often post videos of robots with narration, so you can see how many clicks they have. No one looks at them, no one pays attention to them, because most people don’t care about the technical details. ”
In the end, Mr. Rebert said, while “a lot of business people are at the fore,” his staff isn’t. “I think a lot of us are people who have never ended up. We are people who regard robots as their duty. “