The journey of the robots of Boston Dynamics’ Mark Reibert to the consumer has been a long one – through collaboration with the military and a failed marriage with Google. How did a company that grew out of a university laboratory, decades later, find itself under the wing of legendary investor Masayoshi Sona, and what way does it still need to go to our home’s automated palletizer?
Demonstration videos of Massachusetts-based robot maker Boston Dynamics with its two-legged and four-legged creatures have amassed millions of views on YouTube, and skeptics increasingly fear a machine uprising, sometimes even drawing parallels with the dystopian TV series Black Mirror.
At the end of September, the main news related to the company was not another video, but the announcement of the start of serial production of Spot robops. They will be offered exclusively to organizations and only for rent, but the exact cost has not yet been disclosed. The publication TechCrunch believes that renting one four-legged will cost tens of thousands of dollars – of course, everything will depend on the request and needs of a particular client. The manufacturer will not supply turnkey solutions, and the end user will have to program the devices themselves, depending on the nature of the application.
“Now we no longer need to send 12 maintenance engineers with each robot. Suppose a client wants to operate the Spot robot in close proximity to people, then the device will have to learn to recognize them and correct its behavior. Nothing is impossible in this. In this case, we will give the user access to our repository on GitHub and let him write the necessary scripts and algorithms. But if someone wants ready-made solutions right out of the box … We want people not to expect miracles and understand how things really are, ”explained Michael Perry, vice president of business development at Boston Dynamics.
According to Perry, a lot of emails come to the company and many write simply because they want the Spot model as a pet or a helper who will bring beer from the refrigerator. “That would also be great, but we are still far from that,” he admits.
Thus, today Boston Dynamics, a company with almost thirty years of history, is once again at a fork in the road – can its robots, as if they came into reality from movies about the “Rise of the Machines”, become a commercially successful product? The history of the company shows that the answer to this question is not so obvious.
The first steps
Reibert’s journey to robotics began at Northeastern University in Boston, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in electrical engineering. After graduating in 1977, he joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and in 1980 moved to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. It was there that he founded the Leg Lab. The goal of the laboratory, as Reibert himself put it, was “to investigate active balance and dynamics in the creation of systems on the legs.” In other words, the creation of robots that can walk. The co-founder of the laboratory was Ivan Sutherland, a man considered by the scientific community to be the father of computer graphics.
The money for the work of the laboratory was found quite quickly – in 1980, the Department of Advanced Research Projects of the US Department of Defense (DARPA) decided to finance the development.
At that time, the development of robots on legs was one of the most advanced areas of scientific research. By the early 1980s, the production of robots “with hands”, which could lift loads and assemble mechanisms, as well as robots on wheels, had already been mastered. Nevertheless, American scientists were not going to stop there. They believed that robots on their feet could be used in the military and industrial fields. Similar studies were carried out not only at Carnegie Mellon University, but also in several other research centers in the United States, as well as in Europe and Japan. And a few scientists from the United States who visited the Soviet Union said that they also showed interest in robots on their feet in the USSR, and there they were also considering the military use of such robots. So the keen interest of the US Department of Defense in such robots at the height of the Cold War is not difficult to explain.