Are There More Realistic Robots Than Tesla Bots?

When will your job be taken by a robot? Elon Musk might say next year, but I’m not so sure.

Musk, of Tesla and Space X fame, last week announced the development of a “general purpose, bi-pedal, humanoid robot capable of performing tasks that are unsafe, repetitive or boring.” His promise, part of Telsa’s AI Day, that the so-called Tesla Bots would be available by next year was met with wide skepticism, especially considering the demonstration included a human dressed like his proposed creation — but are robotics ready for wide use?

Tesla is certainly not the first company to venture into robotics. Mention the field and many might conjure images of robots being poked and prodded to test their balance. Those videos are part of what made Boston Dynamics a household name. The company has brought legitimate innovations to market, although like others in this field, they’ve seen mixed success. Their military-grade pack mules were deemed too loud for use by the U.S. Marine Corps, but Spot, their four-legged bot, is available for $74,500 and has been used for inspections on an oil storage boat. Speaking of those viral videos, the company’s humanoid Atlas bots recently graduated to parkour.

Many people might associate robots with industrial applications, and with good cause. Massive robots have been used in automotive assembly lines for years, making the welding, lifting, painting and other tasks more efficient. And Amazon has been employing robots alongside human workers to prep orders inside its cavernous warehouses since 2012, and is looking for ways to use robots to reduce injuries to humans.

Robots are slowly making their way out into less controlled environments — again, with mixed results. The state legislature in Pennsylvania has passed a loose set of regulations for sidewalk delivery robots, which carry food and other orders. Elsewhere, autonomous, egg-shaped security robots patrol shopping malls and streets at costs of around $60,000 a year, although one such bot tasked with deterring vandalism outside a San Francisco SPCA was removed after criticism and another accidentally plunged into a fountain. And SoftBank, a former owner of Boston Dynamics, recently halted production of its $1,600, emotion-sensing robot, Pepper, because of poor sales.

Maybe robotics is destined for tasks that aren’t so directly in the spotlight. In a previous post, I mentioned the robotic exoskeletons and “tails” that could help aging populations retain mobility; cute robotic companions have been shown to decrease loneliness, although a study published in the International Journal of Social Robotics showed people who use those cuddly devices could be seen as “comparably low in competence.” Robots could also find roles elsewhere in health care: Another study, published late last year, showed nurses are receptive to using a robotic assistant.

With all this in mind, what types of robots are worthy of investment? There are certainly worthwhile and practical applications, but the cost is still too high for the average consumer to purchase an in-home bot. Will these machines continue to be relegated to warehouses, assembly lines and cameos in futuristic TV shows, or will they find a place in wider society? Only time will tell, but I’m not banking on Elon Musk’s automated army roaming the streets any time soon.



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