Apr 19 2024

New Generation of Electric Robots

Boston Dynamics (now owned by Hyundai) has revealed its electric version of its Atlas robot. These robot videos always look impressive, but at the very least we know that we are seeing the best take. We don’t know how many times the robot failed to get the one great video. There are also concerns about companies presenting what the full working prototype might look like, rather than what it actually currently does. The state of CGI is such that it’s possible to fake robot videos that are indistinguishable to the viewer from real ones.

So it’s understandable that these robot reveal videos are always looked at with a bit of skepticism. But it does seem that pushback does have an effect, and there is pressure on robotics companies to be more transparent. The video of the new Atlas robot does seem to be real, at least. Also, these are products for the real world. At some point the latest version of Atlas will be operating on factory floors, and if it didn’t work Boston Dynamics would not be sustainable as a company.

What we are now seeing, not just with Atlas but also Tesla’s Optimus Gen 2, and others, is conversion to all electric robots. This makes them smaller, lighter, and quieter than the previous hydraulic versions. They are also not tethered to cables as previous versions.

My first question was – what is the battery life? Boston Dynamics says they are “targeting” a four hour battery life for the commercial version of the Atlas. I love that corporate speak. I could not find a more direct answer in the time I had to research this piece. But four hours seems reasonable – the prior version from 2015 had about a 90 minute battery life depending on use. Apparently the new Atlas can swap out its own battery.

In addition to being electric, the Atlas is faster and more nimble. It can rotate its joints to give it more flexibility than a human, as demonstrated in the video. The goal is to allow it to flexibly operate in narrow work spaces.

Tesla has also unveiled its Optimus Gen 2 robot, which is a bit more oriented around personal rather than factory use. Tesla hypes that it could theoretically go shopping and then come home and cook you dinner. By way of demonstration, it released a video of Optimus delicately handling eggs. To be clear, Optimus is a prototype, not ready for commercialization. Tesla knows it needs to make continued improvement before this product is ready for prime time. Musk claims he is aiming for a sub $20,000 price tag for the commercial version of Optimus – but of course that does not mean much until they are actually for sale.

There is no question that the latest crop of electric robots are a significant improvement on earlier robots – they are more agile, lighter, with longer battery life. These robots can also benefit from recent advances in AI technology. Currently there are estimated to be 3.4 million industrial robots at work in the world, and this number is growing. The question is – are we really on the cusp of robots transitioning to non-industrial work and residential spaces? As is often the case – it’s hard to say.

As a general rule it’s good to assume that technology hype tends to be premature, and real-world applications often take longer than we anticipate. But then, the technology crosses the finish line and suddenly appears. All the hype of personal data assistants merging with cell phones and the internet lasted for at least a decade, before the iPhone suddenly changed the world. There is a hype, a post-hype, and then a reality phase to such technologies. Of course, the reality may be that the technology fails. Right now, for example, we appear to be in the post-hype phase of self-driving cars. But we also seem to be rapidly transitioning to self-driving cars as a reality, at least to some extent.

It still feels like we are in the hype phase of residential robots. It’s hard to say how long it will be before all-purpose robots are common in work spaces and the home. The difference, I think, with this technology is that is already does exist, for industrial use. This is more of a transition to a new use, rather than developing the technology itself. But on the other hand, the transition from factory floor to home is a massive one, and does require new technology to some extent.

There is also the issue of cost. Are people going to pay 20k for a robot? What’s the “killer app” that will make the purchase worth it? Where is the price break where people will feel it is a worthwhile appliance, worth the cost. When will robots become the new microwave oven?

On the encouraging side is the fact that these robots are already very capable, and steady incremental advances will add up quickly (as they already have). On the down side, it’s hard to see such an appliance will be worth the cost anytime soon. They will need to become either incredibly useful, or much cheaper. Will they really provide 20k worth of convenience, and be more cost-effective than just hiring people to do the jobs you don’t want to do? There is a threshold, but we still may be years away from crossing it.

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