Can Hazing This Alphabet Robot Improve Disaster Response?

Can Hazing This Alphabet Robot Improve Disaster Response?
geralt / Pixabay

Boston Dynamics, the robotics unit of Alphabet, has released a video showing its Atlas humanoid robot being abused by developers.The punishment endured by the robot could end up benefiting disaster relief efforts. Atlas is now smaller than previous versions and can operate without wires, which suggests significant progress, writes Jack Nicas for The Wall Street Journal.

Atlas robot responds impressively to physical abuse

During the latest video the researchers can be seen knocking boxes out of Atlas’ hands, and pushing the robot over. However the humanoid picks up the boxes over and over again, while repeatedly getting back to its feet.

The latest version of Atlas is around 5-foot-9-inches tall, weighs in at 180 pounds. That is significantly smaller than previous versions, that were 6-feet tall and weighed 330 pounds. Atlas now balances using sensors in its legs and body, and navigates obstacles using lasers and optical sensors in its head.

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Boston Dynamics was founded in 1992 and was bought by Alphabet’s Google in 2013. It has developed robots for the U.S. military and is now focusing on commercial work. The fact that the latest version of Atlas is smaller, lighter and more mobile is good news for robot fans.

Future versions could be used in rescue teams

Although it may look like the researchers are bullying the robot in the video, it will all eventually be for a good cause. It is thought that future versions of the robot could be sent out into areas where human rescue teams cannot safely go in order to look for survivors.

One potential application would be in nuclear power plants such as Fukushima, which melted down in 2011. For obvious reasons the area was not safe for human rescue teams, and Atlas would have been perfect for the job. If robot rescue teams are to become a reality, the robots themselves will need to possess some human-like skills.

One important advance is the fact that the new Atlas is powered by batteries. “Perhaps the most important change this time round is the lack of cables and support tethers,” explains Forbes contributor Brid-Aine Parnell. “This frees Atlas up for all kinds of uses, including search and rescue operations in areas humans can’t enter and basically any outdoor work.”

Long-term project continues to develop

The first generation of Atlas was created for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge in 2013. The aim is to showcase robots that can “assist humans in responding to future natural and man-made disasters.”

As part of the challenge teams are expected to “guide the robots through a series of physical tasks representative of what might be encountered in disaster zones.” After the contest DARPA said that although Atlas was one of the most advanced robots it had seen, the agency wanted to see improved durability and power efficiency.

This latest video shows how far Boston Dynamics has improved in that regard. The video may provoke a strange response in some viewers, who feel sorry for the abuse suffered by the defenseless robot.

“It definitely triggered the uncanny valley response,” Ken Goldberg, robotics professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “I mean, most of us probably had the same reaction when it got pushed around: We expected it to turn around and blast that guy with a laser beam.”

However the bullying is in fact what makes the video so impressive. “When something sudden and fairly impactful happens to the robot, we call that an impulse, and that’s very difficult for a system to respond to,” explains Goldberg. The fact that Atlas responds so well to the abuse speaks volumes about its capabilities.

While studying economics, Brendan found himself comfortably falling down the rabbit hole of restaurant work, ultimately opening a consulting business and working as a private wine buyer. On a whim, he moved to China, and in his first week following a triumphant pub quiz victory, he found himself bleeding on the floor based on his arrogance. The same man who put him there offered him a job lecturing for the University of Wales in various sister universities throughout the Middle Kingdom. While primarily lecturing in descriptive and comparative statistics, Brendan simultaneously earned an Msc in Banking and International Finance from the University of Wales-Bangor. He's presently doing something he hates, respecting French people. Well, two, his wife and her mother in the lovely town of Antigua, Guatemala.
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