on February 12th, 2021

We live in a world where, more and more, automation can be employed to take on the jobs that are just too dangerous for humans to handle. Tasks that would require mere mortals to risk life and limb are all in a day's work for modern robots.

And now they can dance better than us too.

US company Boston Dynamic has released a video clip proving robots can now bust moves that would see most of us bust ankles...and we defy you not to love it. In fact, that was partly the point of the exercise - to give everyone a boost after one of the toughest years on record and 'celebrate the start of what we hope will be a happier year'.

There's something especially fitting about robots being used to put a smile on our faces, given that they've been used more than ever in the last 12 months to keep us safe from the ravages COVID-19. From drones being used to deliver lab samples and protect front-line health workers through to driverless cars delivering food and essentials. Robotic automation in businesses and the homes has reached new heights in 2020. And with engineers pushing new frontiers, the golden age of robotics may be upon us.

At Boston Dynamics – founded in 1992 as a spin-off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – robots have been programmed to run, jump, backflip, open doors, serve drinks, and even do household chores such as the laundry. But that’s barely scratching the surface of their potential. In 2019, Spot (the dog-like robot seen in the video) was employed by the Massachusetts State Police as an officer in its bomb squad; the following year, SpaceX used the robot to perform tasks in their aerospace testing sites that were considered too dangerous for humans.

The first such machine other engineers or businesses could purchase to tinker with themselves, Spot was even made available to consumers in June 2020; yes, now you can own your own robot pooch for the cool price of US$74,500 (about AU$96,600). The possible uses of the device are so numerous, in fact, that the Hyundai Motor Group moved to acquire an 80 per cent stake in Boston Dynamic in December 2020.

Indeed, the Spot robot is so flexible that, of the dance troupe featured in the video, it was the unit that required the least maintenance in order to perform. Working alongside renowned choreographer Monica Thomas, Boston Dynamic had to produce a whole new range of considerations to enable the smooth moves. It will come as no great surprise to many of us that dancing is harder than it looks – and even harder for robots to mimic.

“Dancing required a lot of strength and speed,” said Boston Dynamics Chief Executive Officer and Vice President of Engineering, Aaron Saunders, speaking to IEEE Spectrum about the project. “Dance might be the highest power thing we’ve done to date – even though you might think parkour looks way more explosive, the amount of motion and speed that you have in dance is incredible. That also took a lot of time over the course of months; creating the capability in the machine to go along with the capability in the algorithms.”

Bot wait, there’s more…

Naturally, not every household is going to be able to drop almost $100,000 on its own robodog…but perhaps the new range of home-bound consumers robots from Samsung will be more within our grasp.

Unveiled at CES 2021 in January, the Bot Handy can pour you a drink by using an advanced AI to recognize its surroundings and the objects within its reach, using the “appropriate amount of force to grab and move around household items and objects”.

“Our world looks different, and many of you have been faced with a new reality, one where, among other things, your home has taken on a greater significance,” says Samsung Head of Research Sebastian Seung. “Our innovations are designed to provide more personal and more intuitive experiences that express your personality. We’re hard at work to bring you next-generation innovation with AI as the core enabler, for your better tomorrow.”

It’s the assertion of the South Korean tech giants that their robots will be extensions of their owners – it’s less about robots replacing human jobs and more about employing automation to remove the burden of repetitive tasks we perform at home. In that way, we can shed some of our day-to-day stresses – and if there’s anything we’ve learned from the pandemic, there can be more than enough of those.

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