SoftBank-owned robot-maker Boston Dynamics is once again wowing the internet. Its latest creation is a robodog named SpotMini which can deftly open doors with its head-mounted gripper arm. The YouTube video Hey Buddy, Can You Give Me a Hand? featuring SpotMini “politely” holding a door open for a buddy garnered more than three million views in just 24 hours.
SpotMini is an upgraded version of its big brother Spot, which was released in 2016. Boston Dynamics says SpotMini’s special skill is “the ability to pick up and handle objects using its 5 degree-of-freedom arm and beefed up perception sensors.” The electric robodog weighs 25 kg (30kg with the arm), and is “the quietest robot we have built.”
WildCat holds the fastest free running quadruped robot in the world record speed of 32km/h, not far off the 37.58 km/h that the world’s fastest man Usain Bolt clocked at the 2009 World Athletic Championships in Berlin.
Boston Dynamics founder Marc Reibart is a robot fanatic who started building hopping machines in 1979 at Carnegie Mellon University. The finished products’ impressive dexterity trailblazed a new generation of robots with robust legs. Reibert moved to MIT in 1986.
Boston Dynamics was founded in 1992 as an MIT spinoff. The company worked on a series of military projects for the US Department of Defence before being acquired by Google for $500 million in 2013. Last June Google decided not to pursue the unit’s long-term research and it was sold to Japanese conglomerate SoftBank in a high-profile acquisition.
No one will deny Boston Dynamics’ marketing success, the company has continually excited the public imagination. An earlier video meant to demonstrate their robots’ balance shows company staff kicking and pushing poor Spot, which is doggedly determined to remain on its feet. This spawned the mocking phrase “Boston Dynamics robot abuse” and a dedicated website selling “Stop Robot Abuse” t-shirts.
Netflix meanwhile has turned robodogs from abused to abuser in its sci-fi dystopia series Black Mirror. Writer Charlie Brooker says he found something “creepy” about Boston Dynamics products, and this inspired the terrifying new episode Metalhead, in which a woman is relentlessly pursued by a human-slaughtering robodog.
There’s no need to worry about Boston Dynamics’ robodogs becoming homicidal in real life. They are still rarely seen outside the laboratory. But as they continue to learn real-world skills we may think of ways to put them to good use, believing we can always keep them on a leash.
Journalist: Meghan Han| Editor: Michael Sarazen