Videos of new robot advancements typically throw the Internet into full buzz mode, complete with headlines about Terminators and "robot overlords." While some of these bleeding-edge bots are terrifying, it's not for the reasons all the click-bait headlines would have you believe.
If you're even a casual follower of the Internet's viral videosphere, you've undoubtedly stumbled across the latest clip from Boston Dynamics, the Alphabet-owned (for now) robotics firm. What BD lacks in a clear path to profitability, it has made up for with a steady stream of sci-fi-tastic videos. Its latest video offering is no different:
However, unlike those past video hits, this latest footage wasn't published to BD's official YouTube page. Instead, it was rather serendipitously captured during a live presentation to investors and uploaded by venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson (complete with Jurvetson's near-orgasmic background narration).
The leaked video shows an auditorium full of financial types reacting positively as BD founder Marc Raibert showcases the company's newest mechanical animals on a screen behind him. However, the audience's biggest reaction is reserved for footage Raibert describes as a "nightmare-inducing robot."
This new mechanical nightmare, dubbed "Handle" (because it is designed to handle things, get it?), is a human-sized robo-horse which manages to keep itself balanced upright (even jumping) atop a pair of wheeled legs. Unlike past walking machines, Handle's wheels allow it to effortlessly and quickly glide through various types of environments, indoors and out.
To be sure, Handle is an astonishing example of future-cool. But it was interesting to watch various media outlets rush to appropriate Raibert's term and describe the video as "nightmarish." The Verge, Yahoo, and Tom's Hardware were just a few notable outlets using the word in their headlines.
These lumbering machines are clearly still a work in progress, and are indeed eerily reminiscent of fictional metal monsters like The Empire's armada of AT-ATs or the bipedal ED-208 from RoboCop. However, the biggest threat these humanoid bots pose isn't to our physical safety but rather to our economic futures.
While modern robotics is in no danger of delivering an advanced humanoid robot akin to The Next Generation's Data anytime soon, the industry is miles ahead of where it was even a decade ago. Handle is speedier and more versatile than previous bipedal bots, but also cheaper, Raibert says, which should terrify a whole sector's worth of human workers.
Author Martin Ford's non-fiction book Rise of the Robots is one of the best (and most frightening) books on impending mass technological unemployment (i.e. when software and robotics advance so far and so fast that human workers can no longer compete). Originally published in 2015, Ford mentions that one of the only things keeping companies like Amazon from completely automating their warehouses is that engineers have yet to figure out how to make machines that can grab and carry objects of varying sizes. Make no bones about it: full automation is Amazon's ultimate goal, and one which countless engineering teams are diligently working to help make a reality.
If you combine Handle's impressive locomotive abilities with BD's second-generation Atlas bot (which has some impressive grasping abilities; see below), then it's not difficult to see how hundreds of thousands of warehouse employees could soon be replaced by a robot workforce that doesn't demand annoying things like lunch breaks, safe working environments, pay, or sleep.
This coming labor disruption won't simply be contained to warehouses—any job that requires simple tasks like transporting objects from one location to another (previously only the domain of humans) will be automatable. Consider the million-plus who work as delivery truck drivers; the hundreds of thousands of mail carriers; or untold number of pizza delivery professionals (in which case, automation might not be such a bad thing).
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Aside from cost, the two biggest hurdles standing in the way of delivery/transportation bots going mainstream are creating machines that 1) can move about in various environments and 2) grab varying types of objects. If we're going by these recent videos, it appears that firms like Boston Dynamics are painfully close to crossing that engineering Rubicon.
These humanoid laborers are nowhere near prime time, but consider where this technology was a decade ago. New technologies like Handle show how precariously close certain skill sets are to being rendered obsolete. These bots may look sci-fi frightening at first, but the real nightmare will be the changes their presence brings about in society once they enter the workforce.