In a video posted online at the end of 2020, three robots performed an astonishingly lifelike dance routine to the song "Do You Love Me." The clip from engineering firm Boston Dynamics was a hit, drawing 24 million views and counting. Watching it, you’re likely to marvel at just how far robots have come—and wonder where they will go next.
That was the point of the video, said engineer Aaron Saunders: encouraging people to learn more about these machines and "imagine new ways in which robots could be useful in our daily lives." At Carnegie Mellon University, researcher Manuela Veloso calls her team's creations "CoBots," or collaborative robots, to emphasize their role in helping, rather than competing with, humans.
Already, robots are more common than you might think. They might not go around dancing on two legs, but intelligent machines can be found today in a variety of settings. They're assembling cars, harvesting crops, and possibly vacuuming your floors. The annual consumer electronics show, CES 2021, was filled with them: One product promises to help with home schooling; another will clean the swimming pool.
The coronavirus pandemic has ushered in yet another role for robots. One machine introduced last December is designed to disinfect places like hotels and restaurants with UV light, moving around furniture as it works. Others have been trained to monitor public spaces for social distancing and remind people of best practices for avoiding infection.
This robot revolution has been made possible by advances in the past few decades across multiple technology fronts: lighter mechanical parts; cheaper, better sensors; smaller and more sophisticated computers. The robots you're likely to see in the future are using capabilities already built into the latest cars, which can alert drivers to obstacles, detect blind spots, and steer within lanes on the road.
As a former Ford Motor Company executive, William "Bill" Santana Li saw this autonomous technology as a unique opportunity. He believed it would change the world, but not in the way many in the auto industry imagined. Did it really make sense to rush into self-driving cars which could be decades away? Li saw a different opportunity: Supporting law enforcement and private security.
"‘Everyone’ is trying to go to Pluto first without perhaps first considering stopping at the moon," he said.
Li's moon shot is Knightscope, the company he founded in 2013 to build Autonomous Security Robots (“ASRs”). Knightscope's five-foot tall, 400-pound machines can detect people, record footage, read license plates, and flag fire hazards, among other tasks—including monitoring for public health practices. Generating more than 90 terabytes of on-site data per year, Knightscope's security robots are meant to complement, not replace, people on the ground.
"The idea is to have the machines do the monotonous and computationally heavy work and have the humans do the strategic and decision-making work," Li said, noting that the 2 million people employed as police officers and security guards in the U.S. can't possibly protect a population of more than 328 million.
Knightscope's robots currently patrol corporate campuses, malls, hospitals, and other public places. When the police department in Huntington Park, California, deployed one of the company's outdoor security robots in 2019, crime reports dropped 46 percent and arrests went up 27 percent. In a separate incident on a corporate campus, a Knightscope robot was able to capture footage of an assault that stationary cameras didn't, aiding prosecution of the crime.
Knightscope is currently developing a multi-terrain security robot that it says could be helpful in settings such as airports, farms, prisons, and energy facilities. As with the other models Knightscope produces, the robots aren't meant to actively police people or apprehend suspects—instead, they serve as an extra set of eyes and ears. Their mere presence, Li said, can serve as a deterrent to anyone with criminal intentions. He wants people to think of robots as a friendly presence that can help make the country safer.
"Machines are here," Li said. "They're here to stay, and they're here to help humans."
To learn more about Knightscope and the future of autonomous security robots, visit knightscope.com