Tag Archives: intelligence

#437964 How Explainable Artificial Intelligence ...

The field of artificial intelligence has created computers that can drive cars, synthesize chemical compounds, fold proteins, and detect high-energy particles at a superhuman level.

However, these AI algorithms cannot explain the thought processes behind their decisions. A computer that masters protein folding and also tells researchers more about the rules of biology is much more useful than a computer that folds proteins without explanation.

Therefore, AI researchers like me are now turning our efforts toward developing AI algorithms that can explain themselves in a manner that humans can understand. If we can do this, I believe that AI will be able to uncover and teach people new facts about the world that have not yet been discovered, leading to new innovations.

Learning From Experience
One field of AI, called reinforcement learning, studies how computers can learn from their own experiences. In reinforcement learning, an AI explores the world, receiving positive or negative feedback based on its actions.

This approach has led to algorithms that have independently learned to play chess at a superhuman level and prove mathematical theorems without any human guidance. In my work as an AI researcher, I use reinforcement learning to create AI algorithms that learn how to solve puzzles such as the Rubik’s Cube.

Through reinforcement learning, AIs are independently learning to solve problems that even humans struggle to figure out. This has got me and many other researchers thinking less about what AI can learn and more about what humans can learn from AI. A computer that can solve the Rubik’s Cube should be able to teach people how to solve it, too.

Peering Into the Black Box
Unfortunately, the minds of superhuman AIs are currently out of reach to us humans. AIs make terrible teachers and are what we in the computer science world call “black boxes.”

AI simply spits out solutions without giving reasons for its solutions. Computer scientists have been trying for decades to open this black box, and recent research has shown that many AI algorithms actually do think in ways that are similar to humans. For example, a computer trained to recognize animals will learn about different types of eyes and ears and will put this information together to correctly identify the animal.

The effort to open up the black box is called explainable AI. My research group at the AI Institute at the University of South Carolina is interested in developing explainable AI. To accomplish this, we work heavily with the Rubik’s Cube.

The Rubik’s Cube is basically a pathfinding problem: Find a path from point A—a scrambled Rubik’s Cube—to point B—a solved Rubik’s Cube. Other pathfinding problems include navigation, theorem proving and chemical synthesis.

My lab has set up a website where anyone can see how our AI algorithm solves the Rubik’s Cube; however, a person would be hard-pressed to learn how to solve the cube from this website. This is because the computer cannot tell you the logic behind its solutions.

Solutions to the Rubik’s Cube can be broken down into a few generalized steps—the first step, for example, could be to form a cross while the second step could be to put the corner pieces in place. While the Rubik’s Cube itself has over 10 to the 19th power possible combinations, a generalized step-by-step guide is very easy to remember and is applicable in many different scenarios.

Approaching a problem by breaking it down into steps is often the default manner in which people explain things to one another. The Rubik’s Cube naturally fits into this step-by-step framework, which gives us the opportunity to open the black box of our algorithm more easily. Creating AI algorithms that have this ability could allow people to collaborate with AI and break down a wide variety of complex problems into easy-to-understand steps.

A step-by-step refinement approach can make it easier for humans to understand why AIs do the things they do. Forest Agostinelli, CC BY-ND

Collaboration Leads to Innovation
Our process starts with using one’s own intuition to define a step-by-step plan thought to potentially solve a complex problem. The algorithm then looks at each individual step and gives feedback about which steps are possible, which are impossible and ways the plan could be improved. The human then refines the initial plan using the advice from the AI, and the process repeats until the problem is solved. The hope is that the person and the AI will eventually converge to a kind of mutual understanding.

Currently, our algorithm is able to consider a human plan for solving the Rubik’s Cube, suggest improvements to the plan, recognize plans that do not work and find alternatives that do. In doing so, it gives feedback that leads to a step-by-step plan for solving the Rubik’s Cube that a person can understand. Our team’s next step is to build an intuitive interface that will allow our algorithm to teach people how to solve the Rubik’s Cube. Our hope is to generalize this approach to a wide range of pathfinding problems.

People are intuitive in a way unmatched by any AI, but machines are far better in their computational power and algorithmic rigor. This back and forth between man and machine utilizes the strengths from both. I believe this type of collaboration will shed light on previously unsolved problems in everything from chemistry to mathematics, leading to new solutions, intuitions and innovations that may have, otherwise, been out of reach.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Posted in Human Robots

#437929 These Were Our Favorite Tech Stories ...

This time last year we were commemorating the end of a decade and looking ahead to the next one. Enter the year that felt like a decade all by itself: 2020. News written in January, the before-times, feels hopelessly out of touch with all that came after. Stories published in the early days of the pandemic are, for the most part, similarly naive.

The year’s news cycle was swift and brutal, ping-ponging from pandemic to extreme social and political tension, whipsawing economies, and natural disasters. Hope. Despair. Loneliness. Grief. Grit. More hope. Another lockdown. It’s been a hell of a year.

Though 2020 was dominated by big, hairy societal change, science and technology took significant steps forward. Researchers singularly focused on the pandemic and collaborated on solutions to a degree never before seen. New technologies converged to deliver vaccines in record time. The dark side of tech, from biased algorithms to the threat of omnipresent surveillance and corporate control of artificial intelligence, continued to rear its head.

Meanwhile, AI showed uncanny command of language, joined Reddit threads, and made inroads into some of science’s grandest challenges. Mars rockets flew for the first time, and a private company delivered astronauts to the International Space Station. Deprived of night life, concerts, and festivals, millions traveled to virtual worlds instead. Anonymous jet packs flew over LA. Mysterious monoliths appeared and disappeared worldwide.

It was all, you know, very 2020. For this year’s (in-no-way-all-encompassing) list of fascinating stories in tech and science, we tried to select those that weren’t totally dated by the news, but rose above it in some way. So, without further ado: This year’s picks.

How Science Beat the Virus
Ed Yong | The Atlantic
“Much like famous initiatives such as the Manhattan Project and the Apollo program, epidemics focus the energies of large groups of scientists. …But ‘nothing in history was even close to the level of pivoting that’s happening right now,’ Madhukar Pai of McGill University told me. … No other disease has been scrutinized so intensely, by so much combined intellect, in so brief a time.”

‘It Will Change Everything’: DeepMind’s AI Makes Gigantic Leap in Solving Protein Structures
Ewen Callaway | Nature
“In some cases, AlphaFold’s structure predictions were indistinguishable from those determined using ‘gold standard’ experimental methods such as X-ray crystallography and, in recent years, cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM). AlphaFold might not obviate the need for these laborious and expensive methods—yet—say scientists, but the AI will make it possible to study living things in new ways.”

OpenAI’s Latest Breakthrough Is Astonishingly Powerful, But Still Fighting Its Flaws
James Vincent | The Verge
“What makes GPT-3 amazing, they say, is not that it can tell you that the capital of Paraguay is Asunción (it is) or that 466 times 23.5 is 10,987 (it’s not), but that it’s capable of answering both questions and many more beside simply because it was trained on more data for longer than other programs. If there’s one thing we know that the world is creating more and more of, it’s data and computing power, which means GPT-3’s descendants are only going to get more clever.”

Artificial General Intelligence: Are We Close, and Does It Even Make Sense to Try?
Will Douglas Heaven | MIT Technology Review
“A machine that could think like a person has been the guiding vision of AI research since the earliest days—and remains its most divisive idea. …So why is AGI controversial? Why does it matter? And is it a reckless, misleading dream—or the ultimate goal?”

The Dark Side of Big Tech’s Funding for AI Research
Tom Simonite | Wired
“Timnit Gebru’s exit from Google is a powerful reminder of how thoroughly companies dominate the field, with the biggest computers and the most resources. …[Meredith] Whittaker of AI Now says properly probing the societal effects of AI is fundamentally incompatible with corporate labs. ‘That kind of research that looks at the power and politics of AI is and must be inherently adversarial to the firms that are profiting from this technology.’i”

We’re Not Prepared for the End of Moore’s Law
David Rotman | MIT Technology Review
“Quantum computing, carbon nanotube transistors, even spintronics, are enticing possibilities—but none are obvious replacements for the promise that Gordon Moore first saw in a simple integrated circuit. We need the research investments now to find out, though. Because one prediction is pretty much certain to come true: we’re always going to want more computing power.”

Inside the Race to Build the Best Quantum Computer on Earth
Gideon Lichfield | MIT Technology Review
“Regardless of whether you agree with Google’s position [on ‘quantum supremacy’] or IBM’s, the next goal is clear, Oliver says: to build a quantum computer that can do something useful. …The trouble is that it’s nearly impossible to predict what the first useful task will be, or how big a computer will be needed to perform it.”

The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It
Kashmir Hill | The New York Times
“Searching someone by face could become as easy as Googling a name. Strangers would be able to listen in on sensitive conversations, take photos of the participants and know personal secrets. Someone walking down the street would be immediately identifiable—and his or her home address would be only a few clicks away. It would herald the end of public anonymity.”

Wrongfully Accused by an Algorithm
Kashmir Hill | The New York Times
“Mr. Williams knew that he had not committed the crime in question. What he could not have known, as he sat in the interrogation room, is that his case may be the first known account of an American being wrongfully arrested based on a flawed match from a facial recognition algorithm, according to experts on technology and the law.”

Predictive Policing Algorithms Are Racist. They Need to Be Dismantled.
Will Douglas Heaven | MIT Technology Review
“A number of studies have shown that these tools perpetuate systemic racism, and yet we still know very little about how they work, who is using them, and for what purpose. All of this needs to change before a proper reckoning can take pace. Luckily, the tide may be turning.”

The Panopticon Is Already Here
Ross Andersen | The Atlantic
“Artificial intelligence has applications in nearly every human domain, from the instant translation of spoken language to early viral-outbreak detection. But Xi [Jinping] also wants to use AI’s awesome analytical powers to push China to the cutting edge of surveillance. He wants to build an all-seeing digital system of social control, patrolled by precog algorithms that identify potential dissenters in real time.”

The Case For Cities That Aren’t Dystopian Surveillance States
Cory Doctorow | The Guardian
“Imagine a human-centered smart city that knows everything it can about things. It knows how many seats are free on every bus, it knows how busy every road is, it knows where there are short-hire bikes available and where there are potholes. …What it doesn’t know is anything about individuals in the city.”

The Modern World Has Finally Become Too Complex for Any of Us to Understand
Tim Maughan | OneZero
“One of the dominant themes of the last few years is that nothing makes sense. …I am here to tell you that the reason so much of the world seems incomprehensible is that it is incomprehensible. From social media to the global economy to supply chains, our lives rest precariously on systems that have become so complex, and we have yielded so much of it to technologies and autonomous actors that no one totally comprehends it all.”

The Conscience of Silicon Valley
Zach Baron | GQ
“What I really hoped to do, I said, was to talk about the future and how to live in it. This year feels like a crossroads; I do not need to explain what I mean by this. …I want to destroy my computer, through which I now work and ‘have drinks’ and stare at blurry simulations of my parents sometimes; I want to kneel down and pray to it like a god. I want someone—I want Jaron Lanier—to tell me where we’re going, and whether it’s going to be okay when we get there. Lanier just nodded. All right, then.”

Yes to Tech Optimism. And Pessimism.
Shira Ovide | The New York Times
“Technology is not something that exists in a bubble; it is a phenomenon that changes how we live or how our world works in ways that help and hurt. That calls for more humility and bridges across the optimism-pessimism divide from people who make technology, those of us who write about it, government officials and the public. We need to think on the bright side. And we need to consider the horribles.”

How Afrofuturism Can Help the World Mend
C. Brandon Ogbunu | Wired
“…[W. E. B. DuBois’] ‘The Comet’ helped lay the foundation for a paradigm known as Afrofuturism. A century later, as a comet carrying disease and social unrest has upended the world, Afrofuturism may be more relevant than ever. Its vision can help guide us out of the rubble, and help us to consider universes of better alternatives.”

Wikipedia Is the Last Best Place on the Internet
Richard Cooke | Wired
“More than an encyclopedia, Wikipedia has become a community, a library, a constitution, an experiment, a political manifesto—the closest thing there is to an online public square. It is one of the few remaining places that retains the faintly utopian glow of the early World Wide Web.”

Can Genetic Engineering Bring Back the American Chestnut?
Gabriel Popkin | The New York Times Magazine
“The geneticists’ research forces conservationists to confront, in a new and sometimes discomfiting way, the prospect that repairing the natural world does not necessarily mean returning to an unblemished Eden. It may instead mean embracing a role that we’ve already assumed: engineers of everything, including nature.”

At the Limits of Thought
David C. Krakauer | Aeon
“A schism is emerging in the scientific enterprise. On the one side is the human mind, the source of every story, theory, and explanation that our species holds dear. On the other stand the machines, whose algorithms possess astonishing predictive power but whose inner workings remain radically opaque to human observers.”

Is the Internet Conscious? If It Were, How Would We Know?
Meghan O’Gieblyn | Wired
“Does the internet behave like a creature with an internal life? Does it manifest the fruits of consciousness? There are certainly moments when it seems to. Google can anticipate what you’re going to type before you fully articulate it to yourself. Facebook ads can intuit that a woman is pregnant before she tells her family and friends. It is easy, in such moments, to conclude that you’re in the presence of another mind—though given the human tendency to anthropomorphize, we should be wary of quick conclusions.”

The Internet Is an Amnesia Machine
Simon Pitt | OneZero
“There was a time when I didn’t know what a Baby Yoda was. Then there was a time I couldn’t go online without reading about Baby Yoda. And now, Baby Yoda is a distant, shrugging memory. Soon there will be a generation of people who missed the whole thing and for whom Baby Yoda is as meaningless as it was for me a year ago.”

Digital Pregnancy Tests Are Almost as Powerful as the Original IBM PC
Tom Warren | The Verge
“Each test, which costs less than $5, includes a processor, RAM, a button cell battery, and a tiny LCD screen to display the result. …Foone speculates that this device is ‘probably faster at number crunching and basic I/O than the CPU used in the original IBM PC.’ IBM’s original PC was based on Intel’s 8088 microprocessor, an 8-bit chip that operated at 5Mhz. The difference here is that this is a pregnancy test you pee on and then throw away.”

The Party Goes on in Massive Online Worlds
Cecilia D’Anastasio | Wired
“We’re more stand-outside types than the types to cast a flashy glamour spell and chat up the nearest cat girl. But, hey, it’s Final Fantasy XIV online, and where my body sat in New York, the epicenter of America’s Covid-19 outbreak, there certainly weren’t any parties.”

The Facebook Groups Where People Pretend the Pandemic Isn’t Happening
Kaitlyn Tiffany | The Atlantic
“Losing track of a friend in a packed bar or screaming to be heard over a live band is not something that’s happening much in the real world at the moment, but it happens all the time in the 2,100-person Facebook group ‘a group where we all pretend we’re in the same venue.’ So does losing shoes and Juul pods, and shouting matches over which bands are the saddest, and therefore the greatest.”

Did You Fly a Jetpack Over Los Angeles This Weekend? Because the FBI Is Looking for You
Tom McKay | Gizmodo
“Did you fly a jetpack over Los Angeles at approximately 3,000 feet on Sunday? Some kind of tiny helicopter? Maybe a lawn chair with balloons tied to it? If the answer to any of the above questions is ‘yes,’ you should probably lay low for a while (by which I mean cool it on the single-occupant flying machine). That’s because passing airline pilots spotted you, and now it’s this whole thing with the FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration, both of which are investigating.”

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Posted in Human Robots

#437910 Virtual Attacks Are Prevalant, Be ...

Virtual attacks have evolved from personal problems to global emergencies, but artificial intelligence and the cloud can protect us. As all parts of the cyber world (personal laptops, business computers, smartphones, digital assistants, TVs, devices) become more connected, they also make us more vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Not only in personal circumstances but in business too. …

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Posted in Human Robots

#437892 This Week’s Awesome Tech Stories From ...

ENVIRONMENT
Human-Made Stuff Now Outweighs All Life on Earth
Stephanie Pappas | Scientific American
“Humanity has reached a new milestone in its dominance of the planet: human-made objects may now outweigh all of the living beings on Earth. Roads, houses, shopping malls, fishing vessels, printer paper, coffee mugs, smartphones and all the other infrastructure of daily life now weigh in at approximately 1.1 trillion metric tons—equal to the combined dry weight of all plants, animals, fungi, bacteria, archaea and protists on the planet.”

SPACE
So, It Turns Out SpaceX Is Pretty Good at Rocketing
Eric Berger | Ars Technica
“As the Sun sank toward the South Texas horizon, a fantastical-looking spaceship rose into the reddening sky. It was, in a word, epic. …This was one heck of a test-flight that addressed a number of unknowns about Starship, which is the upper stage of SpaceX’s new launch system and may one day land humans on the Moon, Mars, and beyond.”

ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE
Tiny Four-Bit Computers Are All You Need to Train AI
Karen Hao | MIT Technology Review
“The work…could increase the speed and cut the energy costs needed to train deep learning by more than sevenfold. It could also make training powerful AI models possible on smartphones and other small devices, which would improve privacy by helping to keep personal data on a local device. And it would make the process more accessible to researchers outside big, resource-rich tech companies.”

ENERGY
Did Quantum Scape Just Solve a 40-Year-Old Battery Problem?
Daniel Oberhaus | Wired
“[The properties of solid state batteries] would send…energy density through the roof, enable ultra-fast charging, and would eliminate the risk of battery fires. But for the past 40 years, no one has been able to make a solid-state battery that delivers on this promise—until earlier this year, when a secretive startup called QuantumScape claimed to have solved the problem. Now it has the data to prove it.”

ROBOTICS
Hyundai Buys Boston Dynamics for Nearly $1 Billion. Now What?
Evan Ackerman | IEEE Spectrum
“I hope that Boston Dynamics is unique enough that the kinds of rules that normally apply to robotics companies (or companies in general) can be set aside, at least somewhat, but I also worry that what made Boston Dynamics great was the explicit funding for the kinds of radical ideas that eventually resulted in robots like Atlas and Spot. Can Hyundai continue giving Boston Dynamics the support and freedom that they need to keep doing the kinds of things that have made them legendary? I certainly hope so.”

BIOTECH
CRISPR and Another Genetic Strategy Fix Cell Defects in Two Common Blood Disorders
Jocelyn Kaiser | Science
“It is a double milestone: new evidence that cures are possible for many people born with sickle cell disease and another serious blood disorder, beta-thalassemia, and a first for the genome editor CRISPR. Today, in The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) and tomorrow at the American Society of Hematology (ASH) meeting, teams report that two strategies for directly fixing malfunctioning blood cells have dramatically improved the health of a handful of people with these genetic diseases.”

ETHICS
The Dark Side of Big Tech’s Funding for AI Research
Tom Simonite | Wired
“Timnit Gebru’s exit from Google is a powerful reminder of how thoroughly companies dominate the field, with the biggest computers and the most resources. …[Meredith] Whittaker of AI Now says properly probing the societal effects of AI is fundamentally incompatible with corporate labs. ‘That kind of research that looks at the power and politics of AI is and must be inherently adversarial to the firms that are profiting from this technology.’i”

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Posted in Human Robots

#437884 Hyundai Buys Boston Dynamics for Nearly ...

This morning just after 3 a.m. ET, Boston Dynamics sent out a media release confirming that Hyundai Motor Group has acquired a controlling interest in the company that values Boston Dynamics at US $1.1 billion:

Under the agreement, Hyundai Motor Group will hold an approximately 80 percent stake in Boston Dynamics and SoftBank, through one of its affiliates, will retain an approximately 20 percent stake in Boston Dynamics after the closing of the transaction.

The release is very long, but does have some interesting bits—we’ll go through them, and talk about what this might mean for both Boston Dynamics and Hyundai.

We’ve asked Boston Dynamics for comment, but they’ve been unusually quiet for the last few days (I wonder why!). So at this point just keep in mind that the only things we know for sure are the ones in the release. If (when?) we hear anything from either Boston Dynamics or Hyundai, we’ll update this post.

The first thing to be clear on is that the acquisition is split between Hyundai Motor Group’s affiliates, including Hyundai Motor, Hyundai Mobis, and Hyundai Glovis. Hyundai Motor makes cars, Hyundai Mobis makes car parts and seems to be doing some autonomous stuff as well, and Hyundai Glovis does logistics. There are many other groups that share the Hyundai name, but they’re separate entities, at least on paper. For example, there’s a Hyundai Robotics, but that’s part of Hyundai Heavy Industries, a different company than Hyundai Motor Group. But for this article, when we say “Hyundai,” we’re talking about Hyundai Motor Group.

What’s in it for Hyundai?
Let’s get into the press release, which is filled with press release-y terms like “synergies” and “working together”—you can view the whole thing here—but still has some parts that convey useful info.

By establishing a leading presence in the field of robotics, the acquisition will mark another major step for Hyundai Motor Group toward its strategic transformation into a Smart Mobility Solution Provider. To propel this transformation, Hyundai Motor Group has invested substantially in development of future technologies, including in fields such as autonomous driving technology, connectivity, eco-friendly vehicles, smart factories, advanced materials, artificial intelligence (AI), and robots.

If Hyundai wants to be a “Smart Mobility Solution Provider” with a focus on vehicles, it really seems like there’s a whole bunch of other ways they could have spent most of a billion dollars that would get them there quicker. Will Boston Dynamics’ expertise help them develop autonomous driving technology? Sure, I guess, but why not just buy an autonomous car startup instead? Boston Dynamics is more about “robots,” which happens to be dead last on the list above.

There was some speculation a couple of weeks ago that Hyundai was going to try and leverage Boston Dynamics to make a real version of this hybrid wheeled/legged concept car, so if that’s what Hyundai means by “Smart Mobility Solution Provider,” then I suppose the Boston Dynamics acquisition makes more sense. Still, I think that’s unlikely, because it’s just a concept car, after all.

In addition to “smart mobility,” which seems like a longer-term goal for Hyundai, the company also mentions other, more immediate benefits from the acquisition:

Advanced robotics offer opportunities for rapid growth with the potential to positively impact society in multiple ways. Boston Dynamics is the established leader in developing agile, mobile robots that have been successfully integrated into various business operations. The deal is also expected to allow Hyundai Motor Group and Boston Dynamics to leverage each other’s respective strengths in manufacturing, logistics, construction and automation.

“Successfully integrated” might be a little optimistic here. They’re talking about Spot, of course, but I think the best you could say at this point is that Spot is in the middle of some promising pilot projects. Whether it’ll be successfully integrated in the sense that it’ll have long-term commercial usefulness and value remains to be seen. I’m optimistic about this as well, but Spot is definitely not there yet.

What does probably hold a lot of value for Hyundai is getting Spot, Pick, and perhaps even Handle into that “manufacturing, logistics, construction” stuff. This is the bread and butter for robots right now, and Boston Dynamics has plenty of valuable technology to offer in those spaces.

Photo: Bob O’Connor

Boston Dynamics is selling Spot for $74,500, shipping included.

Betting on Spot and Pick
With Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert’s transition to Chairman of the company, the CEO position is now occupied by Robert Playter, the long-time VP of engineering and more recently COO at Boston Dynamics. Here’s his statement from the release:

“Boston Dynamics’ commercial business has grown rapidly as we’ve brought to market the first robot that can automate repetitive and dangerous tasks in workplaces designed for human-level mobility. We and Hyundai share a view of the transformational power of mobility and look forward to working together to accelerate our plans to enable the world with cutting edge automation, and to continue to solve the world’s hardest robotics challenges for our customers.”

Whether Spot is in fact “the first robot that can automate repetitive and dangerous tasks in workplaces designed for human-level mobility” on the market is perhaps something that could be argued against, although I won’t. Whether or not it was the first robot that can do these kinds of things, it’s definitely not the only robot that do these kinds of things, and going forward, it’s going to be increasingly challenging for Spot to maintain its uniqueness.

For a long time, Boston Dynamics totally owned the quadruped space. Now, they’re one company among many—ANYbotics and Unitree are just two examples of other quadrupeds that are being successfully commercialized. Spot is certainly very capable and easy to use, and we shouldn’t underestimate the effort required to create a robot as complex as Spot that can be commercially used and supported. But it’s not clear how long they’ll maintain that advantage, with much more affordable platforms coming out of Asia, and other companies offering some unique new capabilities.

Photo: Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics’ Handle is an all-electric robot featuring a leg-wheel hybrid mobility system, a manipulator arm with a vacuum gripper, and a counterbalancing tail.

Boston Dynamics’ picking system, which stemmed from their 2019 acquisition of Kinema Systems, faces the same kinds of challenges—it’s very good, but it’s not totally unique.

Boston Dynamics produces highly capable mobile robots with advanced mobility, dexterity and intelligence, enabling automation in difficult, dangerous, or unstructured environments. The company launched sales of its first commercial robot, Spot in June of 2020 and has since sold hundreds of robots in a variety of industries, such as power utilities, construction, manufacturing, oil and gas, and mining. Boston Dynamics plans to expand the Spot product line early next year with an enterprise version of the robot with greater levels of autonomy and remote inspection capabilities, and the release of a robotic arm, which will be a breakthrough in mobile manipulation.

Boston Dynamics is also entering the logistics automation market with the industry leading Pick, a computer vision-based depalletizing solution, and will introduce a mobile robot for warehouses in 2021.

Huh. We’ll be trying to figure out what “greater levels of autonomy” means, as well as whether the “mobile robot for warehouses” is Handle, or something more like an autonomous mobile robot (AMR) platform. I’d honestly be surprised if Handle was ready for work outside of Boston Dynamics next year, and it’s hard to imagine how Boston Dynamics could leverage their expertise into the AMR space with something that wouldn’t just seem… Dull, compared to what they usually do. I hope to be surprised, though!

A new deep-pocketed benefactor

Hyundai Motor Group’s decision to acquire Boston Dynamics is based on its growth potential and wide range of capabilities.

“Wide range of capabilities” we get, but that other phrase, “growth potential,” has a heck of a lot wrapped up in it. At the moment, Boston Dynamics is nowhere near profitable, as far as we know. SoftBank acquired Boston Dynamics in 2017 for between one hundred and two hundred million, and over the last three years they’ve poured hundreds of millions more into Boston Dynamics.

Hyundai’s 80 percent stake just means that they’ll need to take over the majority of that support, and perhaps even increase it if Boston Dynamics’ growth is one of their primary goals. Hyundai can’t have a reasonable expectation that Boston Dynamics will be profitable any time soon; they’re selling Spots now, but it’s an open question whether Spot will manage to find a scalable niche in which it’ll be useful in the sort of volume that will make it a sustainable commercial success. And even if it does become a success, it seems unlikely that Spot by itself will make a significant dent in Boston Dynamics’ burn rate anytime soon. Boston Dynamics will have more products of course, but it’s going to take a while, and Hyundai will need to support them in the interim.

Depending on whether Hyundai views Boston Dynamics as a company that does research or a company that makes robots that are useful and profitable, it may be difficult for Boston Dynamics to justify the cost to develop the
next Atlas, when the
current one still seems so far from commercialization

It’s become clear that to sustain itself, Boston Dynamics needs a benefactor with very deep pockets and a long time horizon. Initially, Boston Dynamics’ business model (or whatever you want to call it) was to do bespoke projects for defense-ish folks like DARPA, but from what we understand Boston Dynamics stopped that sort of work after Google acquired them back in 2013. From one perspective, that government funding did exactly what it was supposed to do, which was to fund the development of legged robots through low TRLs (technology readiness levels) to the point where they could start to explore commercialization.

The question now, though, is whether Hyundai is willing to let Boston Dynamics undertake the kinds of low-TRL, high-risk projects that led from BigDog to LS3 to Spot, and from PETMAN to DRC Atlas to the current Atlas. So will Hyundai be cool about the whole thing and be the sort of benefactor that’s willing to give Boston Dynamics the resources that they need to keep doing what they’re doing, without having to answer too many awkward questions about things like practicality and profitability? Hyundai can certainly afford to do this, but so could SoftBank, and Google—the question is whether Hyundai will want to, over the length of time that’s required for the development of the kind of ultra-sophisticated robotics hardware that Boston Dynamics specializes in.

To put it another way: Depending whether Hyundai’s perspective on Boston Dynamics is as a company that does research or a company that makes robots that are useful and profitable, it may be difficult for Boston Dynamics to justify the cost to develop the next Atlas, when the current one still seems so far from commercialization.

Google, SoftBank, now Hyundai

Boston Dynamics possesses multiple key technologies for high-performance robots equipped with perception, navigation, and intelligence.

Hyundai Motor Group’s AI and Human Robot Interaction (HRI) expertise is highly synergistic with Boston Dynamics’s 3D vision, manipulation, and bipedal/quadruped expertise.

As it turns out, Hyundai Motors does have its own robotics lab, called Hyundai Motors Robotics Lab. Their website is not all that great, but here’s a video from last year:

I’m not entirely clear on what Hyundai means when they use the word “synergistic” when they talk about their robotics lab and Boston Dynamics, but it’s a little bit concerning. Usually, when a big company buys a little company that specializes in something that the big company is interested in, the idea is that the little company, to some extent, will be absorbed into the big company to give them some expertise in that area. Historically, however, Boston Dynamics has been highly resistant to this, maintaining its post-acquisition independence and appearing to be very reluctant to do anything besides what it wants to do, at whatever pace it wants to do it, and as by itself as possible.

From what we understand, Boston Dynamics didn’t integrate particularly well with Google’s robotics push in 2013, and we haven’t seen much evidence that SoftBank’s experience was much different. The most direct benefit to SoftBank (or at least the most visible one) was the addition of a fleet of Spot robots to the SoftBank Hawks baseball team cheerleading squad, along with a single (that we know about) choreographed gymnastics routine from an Atlas robot that was only shown on video.

And honestly, if you were a big manufacturing company with a bunch of money and you wanted to build up your own robotics program quickly, you’d probably have much better luck picking up some smaller robotics companies who were a bit less individualistic and would probably be more amenable to integration and would cost way less than a billion dollars-ish. And if integration is ultimately Hyundai’s goal, we’ll be very sad, because it’ll likely signal the end of Boston Dynamics doing the unfettered crazy stuff that we’ve grown to love.

Photo: Bob O’Connor

Possibly the most agile humanoid robot ever built, Atlas can run, climb, jump over obstacles, and even get up after a fall.

Boston Dynamics contemplates its future

The release ends by saying that the transaction is “subject to regulatory approvals and other customary closing conditions” and “is expected to close by June of 2021.” Again, you can read the whole thing here.

My initial reaction is that, despite the “synergies” described by Hyundai, it’s certainly not immediately obvious why the company wants to own 80 percent of Boston Dynamics. I’d also like a better understanding of how they arrived at the $1.1 billion valuation. I’m not saying this because I don’t believe in what Boston Dynamics is doing or in the inherent value of the company, because I absolutely do, albeit perhaps in a slightly less tangible sense. But when you start tossing around numbers like these, a big pile of expectations inevitably comes along with them. I hope that Boston Dynamics is unique enough that the kinds of rules that normally apply to robotics companies (or companies in general) can be set aside, at least somewhat, but I also worry that what made Boston Dynamics great was the explicit funding for the kinds of radical ideas that eventually resulted in robots like Atlas and Spot.

Can Hyundai continue giving Boston Dynamics the support and freedom that they need to keep doing the kinds of things that have made them legendary? I certainly hope so. Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots