It seems like every week, Boston Dynamics has some gymnastic bi-ped robot, or a dancing dog opening a door. And they’re incredible, but also impractical. I mean, what are they good for?
And Lead Researchers Gajamohan Mohanarajah and Raffaello D’Andrea of the Institute for Dynamic Systems and Control, ETH Zurich, Switzerland have a robot cube, Cubli. Cubli can balance on a corner or an edge. It can maintain that balance even when you lift up the surface it’s on. Bump the table like a kid bumping the lunch table in school? Cubli don’t care. Cubli’s a boss that way.
What is the point of this? Where’s the use? Well, here’s the point: For years, we’ve dreamed of robot autonomy and robot servitude. “Robot” the word comes from Karl Čapek‘s 1920 play, R.U.R., although Karl claimed it was his brother Josef who came up with the idea. They were described as being organic flesh. The idea of robots as mechanical started appearing in The Steam Man of the Prairies by Edward S. Ellis in 1868.
And those dreams keep appearing in everything from the humanoid Lt. Cmdr. Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation (and Picard), to TARS and CASE in Nolan’s Interstellar. We want robots.
Boston Dynamics has continually seemed to position the quadruped bots they make as potential pack mules. The humanoid bots do gymnastics, running, jumping, and balance exercises. They’re suitable as labor or expendable capital. (The robots will get me for having written this.)
Cubli is smaller, cuter, but is similarly able to balance, jump, fall in a controlled direction, which makes it also able to walk. Currently, it can’t carry anything, or manipulate anything else, but that doesn’t matter.
What matters is not where we are today. It’s how far we’ve come and that these are the building blocks for things that don’t require wheels to go over terrain, things that are as nimble or more so than humans.
Sure, Amazon can redesign their warehouses to use robots instead of humans, designing for robot accessibility, but these are more about things that fit into the harsh, undesigned world.
We may not get to the fictional dream of humanoids that act of their own volition, but we’re definitely getting somewhere, and I am interested in more research like this.