Just when you think that major technological leaps are a thing of the past, a new breakthrough appears. Last week such a breakthrough became public when Google released a video of its humanoid robot “Atlas” (see video below). The video, already viewed 14 million times, showcased amazing technological advances in robotics to the point where one can really imagine Atlas eventually developing into a C-3PO, the famous robot from Star Wars.
Did I mention that Atlas walks on two feet just like humans? If you have not yet gotten involved in the robot craze, you might be wondering why the internet is bubbling so much with this big news. Suffice it to say that, for the last three decades, scientists have spent endless man-hours trying to make robots walk stably on two feet. The achievement of Boston Dynamics, a company acquired by Google, is something which portends a flurry of advances in robotics which will have enormous economic and socio-economic ramifications.
Atlas now resists falling when shoved, and if he does fall face down on the floor, he is perfectly capable of getting up on his feet without any assistance
The Too Cool Atlas
In the YouTube video, Atlas is shown walking on a snowy path inside a wooded area. The uneven, snowy terrain presented a difficult challenge for Atlas, and although at several points it seemed that the robot would fall, amazingly it never lost control and fell.
On flat ground, Atlas is so stable that he resists falling when a man (almost violently) shoves him using a hockey stick. When he eventually falls, he picks himself up and gets back to work – with no hard feelings.
Atlas has sensors in its limbs that detect the body posture and help to keep it upright. The sensors also allow it to see objects that it is supposed to carry and locate the space to place them in. The robot can also easily negotiate a crowded area, as seen when he walks among trees without experiencing any collision.
How Atlas will Change Robotics
Up to now, commercial robots have used wheels or four limbs to move. This creates space and mobility limitations. Atlas has proved that robots can walk on twos; this brings in added capabilities, apart from making it appear more humanoid.
Warehouses might be the first beneficiaries of the Atlas technology. Even at its current stage, the robot is able to carry and arrange heavy boxes on shelves. Recruiting robots into warehouses will reduce ongoing operational costs, as some businesses will be able to reduce staff and reduce costs spent on maintaining human-friendly working conditions.
The new development is also likely to facilitate robots taking over other manual labor jobs in the near term and eventually replacing workers in white collar jobs that require sophisticated cognitive abilities. Martin Ford, author of The Rise of the Robots, said that robots “are starting to pick up cognitive tasks. In a limited sense, they’re starting to think like people… They’re starting to encroach on that fundamental capability that sets us apart as a species — the ability to think.”
Increased degree of limb movement also means that Atlas can easily access most of its body parts. Future robots might therefore be able to conduct repairs on themselves in case of damage. Without the need for a technician to stay around them, they will be able to efficiently carry out long distance tasks such as transportation and parcel deliveries with minimum monitoring.
Robots that can handle jobs requiring interaction with humans have already been developed and tested in positions such as bank tellers or secretarial work, but it remains to be seen if they can handle unexpected situations and how well humans will adapt to interacting with robots remains to be seen.