When Boston Dynamics unveiled its wheeled robot called "Handle" back in 2017, it was described by Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert as "nightmare-inducing." It was clear that this wheeled robot was going to murder all of us before the year was over. It seems those fears were overstated, as a video shows Handle has a new day job... stacking boxes.
As you can see in the video below, Handle is able to roll over to a stack of boxes, pick one up and then roll over to an OTTO Motors robot to place the box on top so it can be moved elsewhere.
Boston Dynamics started moving into the warehouse robotics space last year, and a previous video showed Handle picking up a box and moving it to a palette and a conveyor belt. In a press release, Boston Dynamics Vice President of Product Engineering Kevin Blankespoor said this partnership with OTTO is the next step in its warehouse automation plans.
“We’ve built a proof of concept demonstration of a heterogeneous fleet of robots building distribution center orders to provide a more flexible warehouse automation solution,” Blankespoor said. “To meet the rates that our customers expect, we’re continuing to expand Handle’s capabilities and optimizing its interactions with other robots like the OTTO 1500 for warehouse applications.”
Blenkespoor didn't mention any other companies Boston Dynamics would be working with as part of its warehouse automation efforts, but it seems like there could be more partnerships announced in the future. Ryan Gariepy, CTO and Co-Founder of OTTO Motors, said in the press release that OTTO is excited to work with Boston Dynamics and that the companies can use their technology for a "whole new realm of applications.”
The warehouse automation industry is expected to be valued at over $22 billion by 2022. Companies like Amazon already have robots like the OTTO Motors robot that's featured in the video in their warehouses, but they work alongside humans. If we soon get to a point where a robot can do any task a human can, a lot of people may be out of work. Amazon's warehouses employ well over 100,000 people alone.
Like many people in the automation industry, Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert has often claimed that automation will simply make people more productive and make it so they don't have to do "dull" or "dangerous" jobs. As we've reported, that may not be the case. With robots increasingly being able to do more and more tasks that humans now do for work, we may soon reach a point where large parts of entire industries simply don't require much human labor. That could lead to a lot of unemployed people and a lot of suffering if we don't plan for it.
For now, watching Handle wheel boxes around is just entertaining. Knowing Boston Dynamics, you can be sure there will be more videos featuring this robot in the future.
The Inverse analysis
What other applications are there for Handle? Could it be used for lethal purposes by the military? Boston Dynamics has claimed it's part of the company's "ethos" that its robots are not used to harm anyone, but that could change, and we know companies are racing to build killer robots for the military. When the Pentagon offers a company a massive stack of cash, it's often hard for them to say no.
Outside of military use, it's depressing to see how often automation industry leaders argue that automation won't hurt anybody. There will be job losses, and there could be a lot of them. If they were being responsible, they'd address how we can deal with that problem instead of pretending it doesn't exist.