“The mechanical snort with which the robot dog approaches sounds at least frightening. But there is no response.
On thin metal legs, the yellow-painted four-legged man – 1.10 metres long – stalks towards a flock of sheep. The animals move quite sluggishly, no comparison to the fast trotting when they see Shepherd, Border Collie or Briard.
The scene, captured in a video from the New Zealand mountains, shows the world’s most famous mechanical four-legged friend in action: the robot dog “Spot”. At least externally, the electric-powered running robot is reminiscent of a dog without fur. But in fact, a machine takes care of the flock of sheep here.
Equipped with additional equipment, Spot can not only herd sheep, but also support people at work or – fed with plenty of electronics and sensors – even measure fever and care for patients in corona times. This raises the question: Will robots like Spot soon replace not only shepherd dogs, but also humans as workers?
Spot was invented and built by the US robot company Boston Dynamics. In 2018, the dog caused a sensation for the first time in a video.
Now interested parties can buy the electric quadruped in a newly opened online shop. The base price is 74,500 dollars, or about 66,300 euros. In addition, there are a lot of accessories, from the extra battery to the radar or a reconnaissance unit with a special camera with zoom function for 29,750 dollars.
In a promotional video, the skills of the running robot are presented with all-round observation. They impressively demonstrate how far the development in robotics and especially in Boston Dynamics has progressed.
If you are willing to buy several of the devices weighing around 33 kilograms, you can even have your vehicle pulled with them – “by pack function”, comparable to a dog sled. Climbing stairs, climbing over obstacles and moving in rough terrain are among the basic functions of the robot. In addition, Spot can open doors and observe rooms. He can carry up to 14 kilograms of additional cargo with him.
This enables a wide range of operations – from inspecting power plants and nuclear facilities to guarding construction sites. But it is precisely this broad spectrum that has already attracted criticism in the past.
Last year, Massachusetts police deployed the dog to test whether Spot could help with hostage-taking and terror attacks. Civil rights activists reacted with outrage, calling for greater transparency and nationwide rules on the use of robots: “We need nationwide regulations to protect civil liberties and civil rights in the age of artificial intelligence,” Kade Crockford of the U.S. Civil Liberties Union ACLU said in November.
This shows that films like “I, Robot” from 2004, in which twisted robots turn against humanity in the not-too-distant future, suddenly become real worries. The concerns of civil rights activists testify to the extent of the milestone achieved by the robotics industry and Boston Dynamics, founded in 1992, with the free sale of the metal quadruped.
The fact that the company, which once worked in the arms industry, is entering online trading is a unique commercial robot offering. For a long time now, it is no longer just about the development of two- or four-legged running robots and humanoid, i.e. human-like robots in science mode – smart machines are now a business model.
While researchers are still working on chunky technology, Boston Dynamics has managed to tap into a commercial market in addition to the original military business. Meanwhile, the design of the devices has also evolved: If the four-legged animals were initially driven by noisy internal combustion engines, electric motors now provide the movement. This is all the more remarkable given Boston Dynamics’ corporate history.
The company was founded as a spin-off of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and was swallowed by the Internet company Google in 2013. In mid-2017, however, the search engine giant sold the robot forge again – to the telecommunications and software group Softbank from Japan, the home market for robotics. Angebl I didn’t fit the robot models into Google’s strategy anymore.
In fact, Boston Dynamics, directed by Softbank, has flourished. Videos of jumping or bouncing robots are regularly released. Even a salto has already been achieved by the machines.
So far, this has already caused millions of clicks on the Internet, but the real application is only now really becoming apparent. And it is precisely the Corona pandemic that could give a significant boost to the use of robots. Human proximity has been declared a risk factor in recent months. Accordingly, we are looking for technology that reduces rather than promotes real contacts.
Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, for example, had asked the robot maker for help when one-sixth of staff there had contracted the coronavirus within a week. The company then delivered a mechanical dog to the clinic – equipped with a tablet, Spot was used in locked-off environments such as diagnostic tents to cut off the spatial connection between the doctor and potential patients.
Spot is still an ongoing video conference, but the trend shows that in the future, medical professionals could be reduced – doctors could do their visit from a central location, for example. If patients are asking for help, the robot dogs could first be sent in front of the nursing or medical staff.
Anil Jain works at the Chair of Socio-Economics at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen and deals with so-called “anti-efficiency logics” in a research alliance. The project addresses the radical change in the world of work through automation and digitalization and aims to use the example of the care sector to question whether human values fall by the wayside when robots support or even replace human workers in the future.
“A car doesn’t care,” says Jain, “whether it’s assembled by factory workers or industrial robots.” On the other hand, a patient “who may be suffering from social isolation anyway” will not be indifferent to whether he is cared for by a nurse or a robot. The tenor: No matter how close and emotional robots radiate, they are emblematic of the “dominance of one-sided efficiency thinking”.
And that, Jain explains, would affect not only patients, but also staff. “When nurses are supported by technical means, but on the other hand they have to cope with more and more tasks in an ever shorter time, this only exacerbates the already immense stress situation.” In addition, there would be potential security and trust issues, as well as questions about data protection and control of robotics.
This is probably one of the things that the robotics company Boston Dynamics is betting on cautious growth at Spot: According to the company, the yellow four-legged friend is initially only available for commercial and industrial use in the USA – and not for private home use.
But the company hopes to expand internationally this year, a spokesperson told US technology website VentureBeat: “We plan to produce about a thousand spots next year, but we can increase this depending on demand.” At the latest then the dog of the future will no longer come from the breeder – but from the assembly line.