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Why humanoid robots won’t take over the world

I love “The Matrix” and the first two “Terminator” films as much as any science fiction fan, but I’ve always wondered why there are so few great movies about good robots.

T2 doesn’t count, because the T101 is only there to fight the T1000. The “Star Wars” movies don’t count, because they’re not central characters, and even though they’re the good guys, they’re not good robots. In fact, they’re terrible robots. If you can build faster-than-light travel, C3PO should have better range of motion, and R2D2 should be able to talk. Also, their memory systems are very unreliable.

I’m interested in good robots doing useful things, which is why my favorite science fiction robots are Hewey, Dewey and Louie from a 1972 film called “Silent Running.” They’re no-frills maintenance bots designed for space travel: rugged, reliable, programmable, and autonomous. I won’t give away the ending, but it’s a beautiful scene that still makes me cry, and a perfect example of robots doing good even in our absence.

On this episode of No Parking, Bryan and I sat down with Damion Shelton, Founder and CEO of Agility Robotics, a self-described “jack-of-all-trades” roboticist who left academia to get away from creating concepts and build “good” robots for the real world. His newest creation is Agility’s all-new Digit: a 5-foot-tall, two-armed, two-legged robot weighing 90 pounds.

“This is not a robot that’s out there lifting cars off people in car wrecks or carrying pallets around warehouses,” Shelton said. “It’s about what a person can comfortably do.”

But even that’s not easy. The road to building humanoid robots started years earlier at Carnegie Mellon University with single-legged robots like Thumper, whose leg attached to a rotating arm and walked in circles. This technology then migrated into Agility’s Cassie, an armless two-legged robot capable of walking upright, untethered to power, and eventually into Shelton’s humanoid Digit, specifically designed for commercial applications.

Digit enables light package delivery, which was demonstrated in an entertaining 2019 Ford video, which inspired a lot of snark about when SkyNet was going to take over. My own mother called me when she saw it, asking if there was anything to worry about.

But Shelton is careful to stress the limitations of Digit’s artificial intelligence.

“We encourage a healthy skepticism in trying to not get people to read too far in between the lines. That the robot sees somebody and walks around them doesn’t mean that it has an emotional awareness or anything like that… But yeah, I think people will be pleasantly surprised.”

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