Boston’s Relationship with Robotics
Massachusetts is home to over 1,000 robotics companies, but Boston inparticular has established itself as one of the world’s leading robotics centre. The rich combination of a network of top universities, startup incubators and accelerators, specialist suppliers and advanced materials firms has allowed a real robotics cluster to form and a community to develop. However, what makes Boston particularly strong is the diversity of the robotics firms – companies are making and developing robots for a wide range of tasks and uses. Jibo and Atlas are two Boston-born robots, both making waves in the industry, and both designed with very different goals in mind.
Jibo has been designed specifically for domestic interaction and is designed to aid day-to-day living. The creators are aiming to create a personality for the robot that people can really live with and want to engage with on a daily basis.
Jibo exhibits empathy which means he can sense, understand and respond and he will constantly learn as you engage with him. He will be able to sense when you are feeling down and will try to make you smile. The creators have been careful to ensure Jibo can tune into reactions accurately and read emotions clearly, so you’ll never feel like he’s overreacting in his response. He uses machine learning, speech and facial recognition, and natural language processing to learn from his interactions with people.
Founder Dr. Cynthia Breazeal promotes Jibo as a solution to care for the young and the elderly in the future. She argues that as the demand for things like aging at home, chronic disease management and early childhood learning continue to rise, the demand will continue to exceed the human institutional ability to meet those needs, and this is projected to worsen over time. Robots like Jibo who help around the household and provide a form of companionship could be in part a solution to these global problems.
Boston Dynamics builds advanced robots which have remarkably human-like behaviour – mobility, agility, dexterity and speed. Perhaps the most impressive is Atlas; a high mobility, humanoid robot designed to negotiate outdoor terrain.
Standing at at 5 foot 9 inches and weighing 180 pounds (less intimidating than it’s predecessor which was six feet tall and weighed 330 pounds) Atlas is well equipped for outdoors. It uses laser-powered LIDAR technology in its head to assess and navigate across terrain and sensors and hydraulics in its legs and body to maintain balance.
Atlas walks in two legs and so upper limbs are free to lift, carry and manipulate the environment. It is strong and coordinated enough to climb using hands and feet to pick its way through congested spaces and can use tools designed for human use. Viral videos have shown Atlas walking across snow, stacking boxes and righting itself when kicked or pushed over by its engineers.
The long term goal of Atlas is to create something that has mobility, dexterity, perception and intelligence comparable to humans, perhaps even exceeding them. Boston Dynamics have received billions of dollars in government contracts, and more than $34 million from the department of defence in 2012. There is plans to use these types of robots for defence, law enforcement, hazardous waste and in some surgical and medical equipment roles.
Both robots have a very futuristic feel to them yet have a long, long way to go. Looking back at these models will be like looking back at the first mobile phones which today look ridiculous and clunky. Nonetheless, both are a step along the way to robots becoming part of, and enhancing human’s everyday lives. But as technological helpers become more powerful, persuasive and predictive, and start to overtake us in terms of intelligence and mobility, will we still see them as helpful or should we start to refuse assistance while we still can?