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A Robot's Best Friend?

I'm always excited by Boston Dynamics' robots, but this one is special.

Boston Dynamics has a history of setting itself apart from traditional robots by really making the most of all that artificial intelligence has to offer. Where the old-school robots relied heavily on pre-programmed movements (you've probably seen videos of Honda's pioneering robots shuffling awkwardly across a room), computers are finally at the level where these robots can reason about movement in a human-like way, and plan around it.

Old-school walking robots, when asked to walk around an obstacle, thought something like this: "Okay, it's on my right, I'll perform 3 shuffles to the left, then step forward 2 times, then shuffle back to the right". It sounds reasonable, but you spot it a mile away because the robot abruptly switches from manoeuvre to manoeuvre - that classic robotic movement.

These Boston Dynamics robots, however, actually run physics simulations to plan their movements. When they confront the same obstacle, their thoughts are more along the lines of "If I put my foot here, I'll start to tip that way, so then I can put my other foot ... no, that won't work. What if I put it here? Then I'll start swinging around, so I ..." - It's much more about consequences of little actions, and the robot doesn't need to know in advance how to do something to be able to do it, and do it well. It means these robots can chain movements together into something smooth, and do it on rough surfaces that traditional robots would need massive tables of manoeuvres to navigate.

Of course, sometimes you don't really want to rely on the robot to have to figure it out anew each time. At 0:32, SpotMini slips on a banana skin a la Looney Tunes. I guess the researchers at Boston Dynamics weren't happy with the way the AI was able to get back on its feet, because you can see it abruptly switch to a more traditional pre-learnt manoeuvre to get back on its feet. It's very robotic, and it sits in stark contrast to the rest of the fluid, animal-like movement, but it's fast.

Now, where this robot is different to the other Boston Dynamics robots is that it's in a very consumer-friendly package. This robot is small and light enough to trot around a house, and it's dexterous enough to do household tasks like sorting the recycling and picking things up. Where the previous robots have had more than a few military overtones, this robot, once the production costs come down, seems like something with a lot of civilian uses.

It'll be interesting to see where this ends up going. Walking has a lot of advantages over wheels when it comes to uneven terrain, so I don't think these robots are just a fad - it solves a problem in a very elegant way that nature has demonstrated the effectiveness of for millions of years. Now that we're seeing increasingly polished walking robot systems, I'm sure it's only a matter of time before we see robotic legs being attached to other commercial products - maybe offroad vehicles?

If so, walking to work could take on a new meaning.

First unveiled in a viral video in June , SpotMini is capable of a variety of domestic tasks including stacking dirty dishes in the dishwasher and sorting cans into the recycling.

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