Spot the Robot Dog Trots Into the Big, Bad World

So BD’s researchers and execs have had to sit down with each prospective early adopter and talk through what their needs are, and what the robot can and can’t do for them—or whether they even need such an advanced platform in the first place. “We really try to work with customers and our own internal expectations to make sure that we’re not tackling a sensing task that, if you just installed a bunch of Nest cameras, you’d have the same result,” says Perry.

At the same time, BD is trying to make Spot a flexible platform, so adopters can tailor the robot to fit their needs—think of it more like Android than iOS. That’s where the newly downloadable SDK comes in, allowing operators to program new behaviors. For example, if Spot is working a construction site, a project manager might want it to recognize and photograph certain objects. The SDK allows them to connect Spot’s cameras to computer vision models running either onboard the robot or in the cloud. Once they set Spot’s path by joysticking it around so it can remember the route, then they can let Spot autonomously roam the site, doing the work of a human who’d have to wander around doing the same.

What’s tricky is figuring out how customizable to make such an advanced machine. Higher-level customization—getting Spot to recognize certain objects or walk certain routes—is one thing. But BD isn’t particularly interested in letting clients toy with how the robot’s joints work in concert to produce that famous agility. “We’re assuming that our customers believe that we’ve got that problem solved,” says Perry. “It’s not how it gets from point A to B. It’s that it gets from point A to B while doing something that I care about.”

By making the SDK public, BD is opening up a platform to coders and roboticists of diverse specialties. “Developers will still need to become part of the early adopter program to lease the robot to execute their code,” adds Perry, “but all interested parties will now be able to view the SDK and existing early adopters can open source their own code.” BD is also announcing today that it’ll be putting on a developer conference in May in Boston.

And as those machines grow more capable, BD itself is transitioning: Longtime boss Marc Raibert is moving from CEO to chairman, with Robert Playter, the company’s COO, taking his place. “This is partly a transition away from us being a research-only shop to a company that’s fielding commercial products,” says Perry. “So [Raibert] is still setting higher-level vision for pushing forward the envelope on robotics development at Boston Dynamics.”

But with increasingly advanced robots like Spot come increasingly sticky PR problems. From politicians and economists we’re getting dire warnings about how the machines will replace humans in the workforce. It’s true that as robots have gotten better at sensing the world, they’ve been freed from factory floors, where they worked in isolation from humans. As they get better at navigating our world—be it as self-driving trucks or delivery robots—the concern is they’ll muscle people out of jobs.

Nevertheless, the outside world is awful for robots. Humanoid robots have nowhere near our stability to stay upright, never mind getting back up. Wheels may give them some traction, but then are confounded by stairs. The world outside an orderly factory is unpredictable and treacherous, even for as nimble a machine as Spot. Humans still need to hold Spot’s paw—it can only autonomously navigate an environment after you show it around. It still can’t manipulate objects. And you have to swap out its battery if you want continuous operation.

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