That and Spot might not even be the right tool for your needs—if you want to remotely monitor five gauges, just train five stationary cameras on them. And maybe you do need a robot, just not something as advanced as Spot. Drones can map environments too, and a wheeled robot like Knightscope’s security robot will work fine for flat environments without stairs. “We don’t want to mislead people into getting a solution they don’t actually need,” says Perry.
This budding relationship between sophisticated robots and human workers is as much about getting the machines to adapt to us as it is about us adapting to them. Because the tendency, especially for something that moves in such an animal-like way as Spot, is to over-ascribe agency to robots, when they’re still very limited.
“People will often name or talk to the robots they work with, even though they know that they’re just machines,” says MIT roboticist Kate Darling, who studies human-robot interaction. “Spot has such a biologically inspired design that it’s hard to imagine people won’t treat it a little bit like a pet.” But a pet this is not—Spot is a tool, and human coworkers must treat it as such.
The neat bit is that as we develop this relationship between humans and machines, we can tailor machines to fit specific niches, just as natural selection has molded the morphology of species. And at BD, what they learn developing Spot can be put to use on another robotic system. BD’s Atlas robot, for instance, walks on two legs but can inform the control mechanisms of Handle, a robot that balances on two wheels. As BD continues to refine Spot, the company can start thinking about designing new morphologies for new tasks.
“I could easily imagine us designing a variant on Spot that is larger and stronger, like you might find outdoors, more like a bulldozer, if it turned out there was enough interest in that,” says Raibert. “It would be an engineering project, but a lot of the intelligence and functionality that is in Spot would translate directly into a form like that.”
This is the vision of Boston Dynamics’ budding robot empire: R&D the hell out of the things, like they’ve been doing for nearly three decades, and use those discoveries to refine a range of robots that fit particular niches, whether it’s Handle scurrying around warehouses delivering boxes, or perhaps a humanoid like Atlas one day lifting elderly folks in and out of bed. In this paradigm, no robot evolves in isolation. And as these things get smarter, they can begin to learn on their own to, say, manipulate certain objects, then share that knowledge with each other.