The AIs are here: Robodogs, Amazon’s Astro & more. Attachment issues!

5 mins read
Spot the robotic dog from Boston Dynamics is increasingly being used by police, emergency workers and construction workers to investigate potentially dangerous settings. Photo: Marcus Brandt/dpa

Robots for home chores, robots for rescue missions and healthcare robots: At a recent conference of lawyers and roboticists, the amazing accomplishments (and stumbling blocks) of AI robots were on display.

There is the Hollywood version of AI robots — the “AI” stands for “artificial intelligence” — that has given us the scary future depicted in the “Terminator”, “Matrix,” and “RoboCop” movies.

But at a gathering of lawyers and roboticists in September at the University of Washington, you could see the actual status of AI robots.

They can get lost when maneuvering, they can get tripped up when trying to climb up gravelly terrain, they’ve got big time issues with multi-tasking.

Yes, robots are doing astounding things. Just not like in the movies.

At the We Robot 2022 conference, now in its 11th year and attended by 170 participants from various parts of the world, they were preparing for this inevitable future.

One paper presented was, “K9 police robots. Strolling drones, RoboDogs or lethal weapons?”

That was from two German researchers. Might as well start discussing the ethics of androids before it is too late.

The thing about robodogs is, “These robots are not able to make a two-way communication. The robot says, “You’re drinking vodka. It’s not allowed in public spaces.’ You tell the robot, ‘I’m not drinking vodka. It’s water,'” said Michael Kolain, legal scholar at the German Research Institute for Public Administration.

“The robot cannot prove if it’s vodka or water. You cannot interact with the robot. It would not be able to process it. It makes no sense to employ in scenarios where social interaction needs to take place.”

At the conference were some of the latest AI robots.

The Amazon Astro, for instance. A 21-pound “home monitoring” robot that can can follow you around the house, help deliver calls, manage shopping lists and detect unrecognized persons. Its offered for an initial price of $999.99 “exclusively by invitation.” After that, it’ll be $1,449.99, because this is Amazon, after all.

Watching the robot in the foyer of the William H. Gates Hall that is home to University of Washington Law School, you could almost start feeling sorry for the little guy.

Barely 1 1/2 -feet high, it was lost as it went this way and that way on its two wheels. It was supposed to be mapping the area, just like it would map the inside of a home. There was a problem.

Astro is the trillion-dollar company’s latest foray into artificial intelligence devices, combining Alexa, the Ring monitoring camera and even a cup holder that comes with the device.

A review of the Astro in The Wall Street Journal was lukewarm, “Amazon’s list of Astro’s talents is overwhelmingly long, but at home the robot doesn’t do anything particularly valuable.”

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Amazon’s Astro has a screen, can sense its surroundings with a camera and microphone and moves around the house on wheels. Photo: Amazon/dpa – ACHTUNG: Nur zur redaktionellen Verwendung im Zusammenhang mit der aktuellen Berichterstattung und nur mit vollständiger Nennung des vorstehenden Credits

Mapping the inside of a house, “It’d take 20 minutes max at a home,” said Bill Smart, who brought in the Astro. He splits his time between being a robotics professor at Oregon State University and as an Amazon Scholar studying robots and people.

But homes have mostly solid walls. The law school’s architecturally-striking building has huge glass walls.

Even being packed with navigation sensors, a periscope, night-vision LEDs, and a “2x Qualcomm QCS605, 1x Qualcomm SDA660, 1x processor with Amazon AZ1 Neural Edge” processor, the Astro had trouble figuring out dimensions.

“The light beam goes right through the glass,” Smart said.

The star device at the conference was Spot, the robot dog made by Boston Dynamics.

It was surrounded by the curious. With its four mechanical limbs and add-on arm that can open doors, push or drag objects, it was eerily dog-like.

You wanted to take it home, except that the base price starts at around $100,000.

The company says that Spot was released two years ago and that it has sold “several hundred” of them.

You might recall its controversial introduction with the New York City Police Department. The department ended its contract for the robot because “critics likened it to a dystopian surveillance drone,” said an April 28, 2021 story in The New York Times.

The Seattle Police Department says that it uses robots for arson and bomb investigations to examine or disable potentially hazardous items and that its SWAT teams use them ‘to access areas which could be dangerous to officers to enter.” The Harbor Patrol has robots to conduct underwater evidence and recovery operations.

The City Council also has approved use of $120,000 in federal money for two “tactical robots with manipulator arms and firing circuits.” The firing circuits are to be used to remotely detonate charges to allow a robot to gain entry into an area.

Police work isn’t what Boston Dynamics touts for its robot dog. It’s for inspecting mining tunnels, oil and gas facilities and construction sites.

One recent use for two Spot robots, according to a June 22 story in Foreign Policy magazine is happening in Ukraine.

Spot can drag unexploded munitions such as cluster bombs to pits containing other munitions, allowing them to be safely exploded.

The Spot on display at the UW event is being used by the school’s Robot Learning Lab.

Rosario Scalise, a doctorate student in the program, is working on Spot’s software program so the robot can be better used in search and rescue operations.

Let’s say a hiker is trouble when climbing Mount Rainier, he said.

You’ve got glaciers, steep terrain, terrain with loose rocks.

“Robots can do a second- to third-class hiking trail,” Scalise says.

Hiking trails are rated into five classes, from a low-risk hike to rock climbing.

On slippery ground, Scalise said, “Humans and animals have a natural physical intelligence. They can anticipate or quickly recover on difficult terrain. It’s a challenge to give this intelligence to a robot. It’s hard for a robot to estimate physical quantities like friction and mass of loose objects like rubble when making contact with the ground.”

Not as captivating in appearance as a robot dog, but astounding in its potential was another device shown at the conference.

It’s called Stretch and was launched in 2020 by Hello Robot, of Martinez, California.

It’s simple, weighs only 51 pounds and consists of a telescopic robotic arm that moves up and down a 4-foot tube on a motorized, wheeled base. And it’s cheap by robot standards, selling for $17,950.

The simplicity is what makes Stretch so special, even if at first glance it didn’t appear so special when Binit Shah, software lead for the company, had it grasp a cup and pick it up.

A November 23, 2021 Washington Post story told how Stretch helped Henry Evans, who suffered a massive stroke that left him mute and with quadriplegia.

For Evans, Stretch can scratch an itch, brush his hair and feed him with a spoon. If you’re paralyzed, an itch on your forehead can be maddening.

In that, you have the promise of AI robots.

So, it’s understandable why another paper presented at the conference was about what can happen if that AI robot that had been around us is suddenly gone.

What happens when a robot at a nursing home is rotated out of service, or a family with an autistic child decides a therapy robot has accomplished all it was supposed to do?

We humans get emotional about robots.

“They name them, dress them, and, when they stop working, hold funerals for them,” said the paper, co-authored by Elin Bjorling, research scientist at the UW’s Department of Human Centered Design & Engineering.

In one case cited, a nursing home resident with dementia had regained the ability to speak because of the robot. When the android was gone, the resident stopped speaking.

That’s something the coders hadn’t coded for in all that software. Attachment issues.

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