Our Reactions to the Treatment of Robots

Most of us have seen employees of Boston Dynamics kicking their robots, and many of us instinctively react with horror. More recently I’ve watched my own robots being petted, applauded for their achievements, and yes, even kicked.

Why do people react the way they do when mechanical creations are treated as if they were people, pets, or worse? There are some very interesting things to learn about ourselves when considering the treatment of robots as subhuman. But it’s equally interesting to consider the ramifications of treating them as human.

The Boston Dynamics Syndrome

Shown here are two snapshots of Boston Dynamics robots taken from their videos about Spot and Atlas. Why do scenes like this create the empathic reactions they do? Two possible reasons come to mind. One is that the we anthropomorphize the human-shaped one, meaning we think of it as human. That’s easy to do since not only is it human-shaped but the video shows it carrying a box using human-like movements. The second snapshot perhaps evokes the strongest reactions in anyone who owns a dog, though its similarity to any four-legged animal will usually do.

Is it wrong for Boston Dynamics, or anyone else, to treat robots in this way? Being an electronic and mechanical wizard, you might have an emotional reaction and then catch yourself with the reminder that these machines aren’t conscious and don’t feel emotional pain. But it may be wrong for one very good reason.

Continue reading “Our Reactions to the Treatment of Robots”

I am Science Fiction Incarnate; I am Handle

This is the first official look at Boston Dynamics’ new robot design, called Handle, and it’s a doozy. They are a trusted source of cutting-edge real-world robotics, which is good. If this came from an unknown source we’d be scrambling to debunk it as fake. This robot shows incredible utility, the likes of which has been relegated to the computer graphics of the movie and video game industries.

Impressive ability to keep 'hands' stationary in 3D space
Impressive ability to keep ‘hands’ stationary in 3D space

At the beginning of the month, we saw a demonstration of the robot but it was simply cellphone footage of a conference hall video. This is a crystal clear 60fps video from Boston Dynamics themselves with a few juicy details to go along with it. Chief among them (for us anyway) is that this prototype has a battery range of about 15 miles between charges. The efficiency is due in large part to the wheeled nature of the beast. It balances on two wheels, but the design attaches those wheels to two fully articulated legs rather than directly to the frame of the body.

The result is a quadruped that is distinctly not human in appearance but can perform well in similar environments and with similar tasks. Handle is capable of offsetting its body weight, allowing the front limbs to pick up heavy objects while maintaining balance. The combination of both electric and hydraulic actuators let it perform feats like jumping over four-foot high objects. The independence of each wheel is shown off with ramps to simulate uneven terrain.

Bravo BD. We can’t wait to see Handle wheeling down the street placing smile-adorned boxes on each stoop as it revolutionizes home delivery. Oh, and kudos on the 80’s-style freeze frame at the end of the video below.

Continue reading “I am Science Fiction Incarnate; I am Handle”

Robot Leaps Uncanny Valley on Backward Knees

We’ve covered a ton of Boston Dynamics robots but this is the second one in a row that has shown a departure from what a lot of people’s notion of an ‘advanced’ robot should look like. It’s a cellphone camera clip of a video played at a conference, but at least it isn’t vertical video — kudos to [juvertson]. At about 3:40 seconds into the video you get a good look “Handle” at a four-limbed robot with backwards joints and wheel.

This design makes a lot of sense and it’s good to see Boston Dynamics thinking about unique robot kinematics alongside the realities of motion. The result is something that appears neither human nor animal — it’s definitely not natural. Despite the presenter’s assertion that this will be nightmare-inducing, we think it’s the opposite, since it doesn’t tweak that string in your brain that cries “predator”.

Obviously this is what we’d call a self-balancer. But two-wheels-plus-rigid-frame it is not. The articulated lower limbs allow it to shift its mass over the wheels. The upper limbs play their part in balancing, at one point acting in the same way a figure skater’s arms would during a spin. And its dexterity in hopping over an obstacle is only made better by [juvertson’s] commentary. This is a really good balance between purely wheeled and purely humanoid designs and a nice addition to the evolution of robotics.

Continue reading “Robot Leaps Uncanny Valley on Backward Knees”

Hacklet 124 Running Robots and The Claw

You never know what you’ll find when you open the projects feed on Hackaday.io. Most weeks, The Hacklet follows a theme of some sort. Sometimes I find projects that just look so cool that I have to get the word out about them.

runner1Such is the case with this week’s first project, Mr. Runner created by [Alex Martin]. Mr. Runner is a quadruped robot that really looks the part. In fact, I’d say it looks like it’s ready to jump off the bench top. Like many of us, [Alex] has been inspired by Boston Dynamics, specifically their Wildcat robot. Wildcat had [Alex] searching the net for walking robot designs. He struck up something he liked with the work of [Dr. Fumiya Iida] and [Dr. Rolf Pfiefer]. In the mid 2000’s, the pair worked out of the University of Zurich. Mr. Runner is based upon their work, with plenty of design tweaks from [Alex].

runner2The basic design is a quadruped with two servos per leg. The servos are at the body and the upper half of the leg. The knee and lower leg are connected by levers and a spring, forming something of a 4 bar linkage. The spring acts as a tendon, absorbing shock, and allowing energy from the servo to be stored and released while the robot runs. [Alex] is experimenting with gaits, controlled by a PC.

Mr. Runner wouldn’t be doing much running without a way to control those 8 servos. [Alex] started with an Arduino and a LynxMotion serial servo controller. This pairing served him well for the first generation of Mr. Runner. For the new version of the robot, he’s rolling his own board based upon Lynxmotion’s
BotBoarduino. The Gerber files have been sent off to OSH Park, and in about a week, Mr. Runner will be off to the races.

claw-1-aAnother great recently updated project is Arcade Claw Game Claw Build by [Alex Anderson]. I spent way too many hours of my youth in arcades, and more than a few quarters went into claw games. Sure, they’re usually rigged, but who hasn’t been pulled in by the chance to test your skill and win a prize? A friend asked [Alex] to design an arcade style claw for a game. A seasoned CNC and 3D printing master, [Alex] grabbed his notebook and started sketching. Rack and pinion designs would work well, but didn’t within the constraints of the game. A leadscrew based design would also work, but would be two expensive. Finally, [Alex] settled on a design and fired up his CAD software. He started with two jaw systems to prove out the basic system. Once that was complete, [Alex] moved to a 4 jaw setup.

claw1Much like the arcade games, the claw is actuated by a central plunger. The plunger drives linkages which move the 4 claw jaws. Everything looks good on paper, but when the CAD drawings meet the real world, things get complicated quickly. The initial design relied on a 3D printed part which connected the plunger to the jaw linkages. Any slop in this part would be magnified through the rest of the mechanical system. 3D printers aren’t perfect, and there was some slop — enough that the parts would pinch and bind up while moving.

[Alex] already has a revised design in mind. This is very much a work in progress. That’s the beauty of well documented projects on Hackaday.io — you get to see what works, as well as all the trials and tribulations it took to get to a final working project. Keep at it [Alex], you’re almost there!

That’s it for this week’s Hacklet, As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of Hackaday.io!

SpotMini Struts Its Stuff

Boston Dynamics, the lauded robotics company famed for its ‘Big Dog’ robot and other machines which push mechanical dexterity to impressive limits have produced a smaller version of their ‘Spot’ robot dubbed ‘SpotMini’.

A lightweight at 55-65 lbs, this quiet, all-electric robot lasts 90 minutes on a full charge and boasts partial autonomy — notably in navigation thanks to proprioception sensors in the limbs. SpotMini’s most striking features are its sleek new profile and manipulator arm, showing off this huge upgrade by loading a glass into a dishwasher and taking out some recycling.

Robots are prone to failure, however, so it’s good to know that our future overlords are just as susceptible to slipping on banana peels as we humans are.

Continue reading “SpotMini Struts Its Stuff”

Taking Atlas For a Walk

Remember Atlas, the humanoid robot from Boston Dynamics? The company bought by Google, er, owned by Alphabet, and uh, most likely to become Skynet? Well — they’ve just shown us that Atlas can take a light jog through the woods now.

Published on YouTube a few days ago, Boston Dynamics gave a quick presentation on some of the upgrades the company has been working on for their bots. First up is a demonstration of Big Dog’s new appendage… What looks like an elephant trunk with a prosthetic hand on the end. Big Dog can now leave the testing lab any time he wants — door knobs are no longer an obstacle. Considering its been able to traverse extremely rough terrain for years now, this doesn’t bode well…

Atlas on the other hand has also come a long way. From standing on his own for the first time back in 2013, he moved quickly to being hit with medicine balls (and not falling over!) — and now, he can run outside. Luckily they haven’t quite figured out the battery pack solution yet… Video of his outdoor escapades after the break.

Continue reading “Taking Atlas For a Walk”

Atlas Survives the Wrecking Ball

[Boston Dynamics] has been just full of videos over the last few days. They’ve dropped updates on Atlas and LS3 in addition to the WildCat update we already featured.

This video shows updates to the Atlas robot. This is to be a simplified version of the atlas, as compared to the robots sent off to competitors in the DARPA robotics challenge. Arms have been replaced with weights. It appears that this update focuses on Atlas’ balancing and handling on rough terrain. Atlas walks gingerly, over some crushed cinder blocks – possibly the same ones we saw BigDog throwing around recently. There are a few tense moments, but Atlas manages to get through unscathed.

The real scary part (for us) is watching Atlas get hit with a weighted ball. We’re assuming the 20 on the ball indicates pounds. Imagine getting hit from the side with a 20lb swinging weight. Would you be able to stand up? Did we mention Atlas did this all while standing on one foot? Atlas takes it in stride though – waving its arms to maintain balance in a very human manner.  Notable is the balance system. Atlas never lifts its foot off the ground. This is slightly different from the bouncing/hopping system of balance we’ve come to know and love in [Boston Dynamics’] other robots.  Continue reading “Atlas Survives the Wrecking Ball”