Like a gymnast nailing a perfect ten, Boston Dynamics’ robot Atlas wowed automation enthusiasts last week. Two years prior, one of the most popular tech videos on YouTube was the humanoid blooper reel of the 2015 DARPA Challenge. In just 24 months machine agility has gone from the Keystone Kops to Aly Raisman. The speed of new technologies and processing power is in itself an Olympic feat, the dawn of autonomous bipedal humanoids is quickly approaching after 500 years of stagnation.
The first mechanical human can be traced back to the master Leonardo da Vinci in 1495 whom designed a suit of armor powered by rotating gears and cables. By the late 18th century, a group of Swiss watchmakers built a trio of whimsically automated effigies that write, draw and play music (see Museum of Art History in Neuchâtel). Skipping to the twentieth century, the Waseda University in Tokyo constructed the first digitally-controlled anthropomorphic robot in 1970 that had an array of features including: limb controls, tactical sensors for walking & gripping, vision system, and basic conversational abilities. Then, at the beginning of the millennium, Honda introduced the world to Asimo, a fully functional “robotic assistant” that could walk with (slow) human-like gait which opened the door to true humanoid companionship.
Asimo was heralded as a major breakthrough in humanoid robotics; however when presently looking back its movements are more reminiscent of Michael Jackson “doing the robot.” Today Atlas’ backflip is being recognized as THE turning point in bipedal locomotion. While Boston Dynamics continues to amaze with dogs and humanoids, many other scientists are equally deserving of recognition and by doing so it opens the door to new possibilities.
Agility Robotics, based out of Oregon State University, announced last year a new kind of dynamic walking mechanism called Cassie. Agility’s robot with its bird-like gait easily strides over a variety of elevations and terrains potentially opening up its technology for last mile delivery and search & rescue. Cassie’s creator, OSU Professor Jonathan Hurst explains, “If we really understood how to implement dynamically capable legs, there would be so many applications for them, including search-and-rescue, exoskeletons, powered prosthetic limbs, and package delivery. I believe legged locomotion is going to be analogous to the automotive industry, in terms of size and how it transforms our society.” Hurst elaborates, “We all want telepresence robots; we all want robots that can help us in our homes. We all want groceries and other goods delivered to our homes on a moment’s notice and for insignificant cost. We all want the cost of manufactured goods to be significantly reduced through more efficient logistics throughout the manufacturing process. Cassie is a step in this direction: It is a first product that will initially be sold to research institutions to support a community of researchers solving the problem of locomotion in the human environment, and Cassie will continue to improve and evolve, as Agility Robotics focuses on products and commercial customers.” While Hurst’s first run of commercial walkers sold out within weeks, his lab is now aggressively working on upper torsos and arms loaded with a multitude of sensors. The goal is to offer a complete humanoid for less than $100,000 that could be delivering groceries in the next decade.
Last Week, Toyota Motor Corporation which is best known for its cars, announced the third generation of its humanoid robot targeted to the eldercare market. According to the press release, the “T-HR3 represents an evolution from previous generation instrument-playing humanoid robots, which were created to test the precise positioning of joints and pre-programmed movements, to a platform with capabilities that can safely assist humans in a variety of settings, such as the home, medical facilities, construction sites, disaster-stricken areas and even outer space.” The General Manager of Toyota’s robot division, Akifumi Tamaoki, boasts that it is now capable of launching “friendly and helpful robots that coexist with humans and assist them in their daily lives,” with the goal of providing “ever-better mobility for all.” Appropriately, Toyota is addressing a large problem in Japan with close to 30% of the population at sixty-five. Tamaoki imagines a future that embraces a more dignified view of aging with humanoid medical aides.
Many tech observers have noted that Toyota has been bolstering its investments in the eldercare market with a new billion-dollar investment vehicle in Silicon Valley called Toyota Research Institute (TRI). TRI separately created a $100 million venture capital fund to invest in startups working in robotics and artificial intelligence. As an example, one of its first investments was Israeli-based Intuition Robotics that is focusing on developing automated conversational devices for aging in place. In explaining the TRI strategy, Jim Adler, vice president of the fund says “More and more robots are going to become part of our world, that’s just a reality. The big challenge will be finding market adoption. I guess the nice thing about cars is there is already a market and they are part of everyday life. Obviously, with robots it is very different. But we’re seeing the digital assistant market explode right now and I think that will transition nicely into walking robots that can assist people in their daily lives. For example, having a conscious robot who can help an elderly person could save the world billions of dollars in health care.”
Toyota’s significant investment into the aging market is a wakeup call for all first world countries that equally will experience large aging population shifts. As Figure 1 above illustrates global healthcare systems could be potentially overwhelmed with expensive geriatric demands on already stretched medical systems. Robots offer the promise of pervasive preventive care equivalent and, quite possibly, exceeding human expectations at a fraction of the cost. The novelty of robots is starting to wear on the public as more impressive feats are being achieved, leading many to conclude that Atlas and other might be able to cross the chasm towards mass adoption within the next few years. In the words of researcher Douglas Stephen of the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, “A robot doesn’t need to do a backflip. But a robot doing a backflip is really impressive. It’s evidence that we’re getting much closer to being able to design robots that are equivalent to or better than an average person.”