Everyone prays for an end to all wars, but if there is another one a new breed of soldier will play a leading role: completely fearless, ready to march into battle any time of the day or night, and will never complain or question orders, no matter how dangerous the mission.
This new soldier is a perfect fighting machine and exactly what military leaders have always dreamt about. This new soldier is a robot.
While a number of companies are developing them, Boston Dynamics is said to be the leading robotics R&D firm in America and probably the world. They’ve been studying how the military can benefit from robotics, developing products that would meet their needs, and then demonstrating their amazing capabilities on social media.
Boston Dynamics’ robots have nothing in common with the clunking humanoids featured in old science fiction movies. They are strong, sophisticated, can run, and even maintain their balance in conditions resembling a battlefield – and that’s just for starters.
They also have the dexterity to pick up guns, aim, and shoot them with incredible accuracy, and function even in wet, cold, and hot environments. They can climb up and down stairs, and walk through construction sites without the assistance of a human. When struck with a very heavy object or pushed with great force, more likely than not they will not fall, and if they do fall, may be able to right themselves quickly.
Although the company’s robots are being tested by the Army, many will also be used in commercial applications and in fact are well-suited for those.
In addition to their other capabilities, some Boston Dynamics robots can lift heavy packages, carry them at impressive speeds, place them exactly where they are supposed to go on a conveyor belt, or stack them in neat piles in a warehouse.
Their Atlas model, for example, is a 6-foot humanoid robot that can jump on to and down off tables, sprint on top of them, and leap over the spaces between them. Atlas can even race over objects that are slanted at different angles and climb up and down steps – without missing a beat, without becoming “winded” and never needing to take a break. Their potential to replace employees in a warehouse is obvious. And with robots now learning to distinguish between human and inhuman targets, they also may replace soldiers one day.
When Atlas was first unveiled in 2013, it was just learning how to walk. Since then, however, it has made great strides. These days it can not only walk but run at a speed of 2.5 meters (more than eight feet) per second, do somersaults, do back flips, and even balance itself on one leg.
As increasingly sophisticated robots are gradually being introduced into the military and commercial worlds, Boston Dynamics has already begun addressing a related issue: the need to program them with a code of ethics.
Man vs. Machine
To be sure, robots still can’t even begin to compete with humans in most areas, and this will not change any time soon – but it will change. And as robots are advancing at an amazing rate and doing things impossible for them just a few years ago, the workplace could look very different sooner than we anticipate.
Going forward, Boston Dynamics is developing robots that will drive cars, climb ladders, pick up tires, extinguish fires, open doors, and open and shut valves.
This means robots will be able to be used in many emergency situations and perform tasks in hazardous environments humans could not survive. They will be used to save lives in fires, floods, storms, and in search and rescue missions.
Newer versions of Atlas will also incorporate AI, which will enable it to make some decisions based on the environment it is in. They will learn from every failure and incorporates these lessons into their memories; some of these robots have been field-tested with encouraging results.
These advances are just the tip of the iceberg. The companies that are developing them are almost certainly keeping their most amazing accomplishments under wraps for competitive reasons. Nevertheless, some advances have become so amazing that it’s becoming more difficult to keep them hidden from view. Consider the following:
*San Francisco will allow police to deploy robots that kill; in Oakland, robots will be armed with lethal shotguns;
*Scientists have developed “living” skin for robots, blurring the line between humans and machines;
*Scientists have created “the first-ever robots that can reproduce.”
Is Society Ready?
Will society be better off with robots that can do many of the tasks people find difficult? Maybe the answer can be found by looking at what happened when PCs became part of our culture.
At first, everyone was delighted. But then something shocking happened: PCs became infected with viruses. Crucial files and records they held were erased – and sometimes even the PCs were destroyed.
In the years since, attacks on PCs have become more sophisticated, and malware, hacking, Trojan horses, and related problem all too common. Even simply opening emails may gave hackers access to confidential work, very private emails, and lead to huge financial losses.
Is it possible that the same pattern will repeat itself as robots become more sophisticated and prevalent? At first, we will be delighted by all the work they do for us. But subsequently, we may change our minds.
Super-tiny robots smaller than flies could be used for medicinal purposes or to spy on hostile countries. But in theory, they can also be used to spy on civilians and in industrial espionage. Robot police with a license to shoot can be used in law enforcement; but in the wrong hands they can also be used to threaten a population and prevent lawful protest.
Let’s hope that society has learned from the past and places safeguards on new robots that are developed before any serious harm is done. But power and greed may interfere, and I’m not optimistic. How about you?