Robots, in our collective imagination, are objects of fascination and fear. While our inner five year-olds marvel at the thought of Transformers or C-3PO in real life, the adult side of us fret over concerns about how robots might affect — or even replace — human jobs.
Make no mistake about it — robots will take on jobs, but not in the way you most fear, said Boston Dynamics CEO Dr. Robert Playter at Yahoo Finance’s Invest conference. Boston Dynamics, founded in 1992, is a leading robotics design and engineering company that counts Meta (META), Nestle Purina, Anheuser-Busch (BUD), and DHL Express among its clients. Playter said that company’s industrial robots will conduct tasks that humans simply don’t want, or aren’t well-suited to.
“The jobs this robot is performing are so monotonous that people don’t excel at them,” he said. “Would you want the job where you walk through the factory with a clipboard, recording temperatures, pressures, and gauges repetitively every day, multiple times a day?”
This is the sort of role most people would rather avoid or might end up doing incorrectly out of boredom, making it a perfect job for robots, Playter added.
One of Boston Dynamics’ most well-known robots, Spot, does this and other jobs like it. The four-legged robot dog — famous for the fluidity of its movement — is being deployed at-scale in industrial contexts, such as factory inspection at Nestle Purina.
Other applications for Spot include situations that are too dangerous or unsafe for humans.
“We’ve had Spot at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plants, and it’s been to Chernobyl,” said Playter. “For the police, if they have to serve a warrant to a murder suspect, you don’t want the cop opening the door. That’s a very dangerous environment. So, having a robot mediate that first contact with a potential suspect is actually going to be safer for folks.”
Developing robots is a long, expensive process — it took at least $100 million to create Spot. There’s also a gulf between having a functional robot and a scalable use case. A robot may perform reliably, but it has to fill a real need that drives widespread adoption, such as cost or efficiency savings.
“We are building a new industry here, and you have to cross the chasm with a high-value use case that is scalable and is going to pay for the development of these machines,” said Playter.
So, if you’re waiting for that robot maid in your home, we’re still about ten to 20 years off, said Playter. That’s the key, unavoidable reality in the robotics business — you can’t build Spot the way you would a car. For the foreseeable future, this is a capital intensive, time intensive, and incredibly specialized process.
“You have to iterate on the hardware, there is software, and the first prototype is not going to be reliable enough, so you won’t be able to deliver it,” Playter told Yahoo Finance. “There are a bunch of little companies out there that claim they’re going to launch a humanoid in two years, but I think they’re just blowing smoke.”
“I think he’s been watching too many science fiction movies, and I believe the fear-mongering is a bit overblown,” Playter referred to Musk’s doomsday prediction of robots wiping out human jobs. But the billionaire should be taken seriously, Playter added. He has the built in advantage of possessing the manufacturing power, the software expertise, the economy of scale, and the financial wherewithal to fund the efforts.
But Boston Dynamics is driving in a different direction than the famous carmaker. “On the other hand, he is saying things that don’t make sense to me, like intentionally making the robots slow and weak for safety,” said Playter. “You want to create robots that are strong and powerful because that’s the only way they will be useful.”
Nevertheless, the AI boom could move the robotics industry forward. Boston Dynamics is currently working on integrating Spot with Open AI’s ChatGPT.
“AI is the brain, the robot is the body, and together, I think we’re going to build an entirely new industry that’s basically going to change business,” he said.