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Boston Dynamics CEO says a robot workforce is nothing to fear

The CEO of Boston Dynamics says more warehouse operators are considering a robot workforce after COVID-19 exposed health vulnerabilities at logistics hubs. His comments come as Amazon (AMZN) warns it could run out of workers by 2024.

“They have almost 100 per cent turn-over in logistics jobs like picking and packing boxes,” Robert Playter told Yahoo Finance Canada at the Collision tech conference in Toronto. “We’ve definitely seen [with] our industrial or warehouse customers [that] interest in robotics has only increased during the pandemic.”

Boston Dynamics has shown its “Stretch” robot is smart enough to react to a stack of boxes suddenly falling over, and clean up the mess. The company plans to release a new robot every three-to-five years aimed at mastering a new workplace task. But Playter says the key is Boston Dynamics looks for the sweet spot between what the labour market needs, and what its robots are capable of doing.

“The next robot, which we hope will come out in a few years, will probably be pushing in the direction of more dexterous manipulation tasks, perhaps in a manufacturing environment,” he said.

Late last year, the Hyundai Motor Company (HYMTF) acquired an 80 per cent stake. Playter says the new majority owner will help commercialize its robots with its expertise in large-scale manufacturing.

“They're going to help us create these things more efficiently, and lower the cost,'' he said.

“By the end of this year, we'll have about 1,000 robots out with customers. So we're seeing strong interest.”

Asked if robots will push human labour out of warehouses, he said, “I think a lot of the manual work will be done by robots. But robots aren't as smart as people yet, and you have to deal with unexpected circumstances.”

Playter says he envisions an “up-skilling path” for workers to become robot operators.

“The robot, its intelligence, handles a lot of the complexities. You just give it very high-level commands about what to do, sort of point it in a direction, or lay down a route. And it will autonomously do that work on its own,” he said. “It won’t take a college degree to operate them.”

Jeff Lagerquist is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow him on Twitter @jefflagerquist.

Download the Yahoo Finance app, available for Apple and Android.

Video Transcript


JEFF LAGERQUIST: All right, Robert. Anytime you show up with Spot or any of Boston Dynamics' robots, it always causes a stir, whether it's on YouTube or "Jimmy Kimmel Live" or here in person at Collision. How long before this kind of thing becomes so mainstream in our society and in our workforce that people just don't get this kind of excitement anymore?

ROBERT PLAYTER: Well, I hope the answer is never because I think robots like this that move in sort of this natural and organic way, it generates a kind of fundamental interest. And my hope is that they're entering the workforce with us and it becomes an interesting and joyful part of work, interacting with the robots, because, you know, they can respond to you. They can interact. They are definitely going to become more common rapidly. We've already got about-- by the end of this year, we'll have about 1,000 robots out with customers. So we're seeing a strong interest.

JEFF LAGERQUIST: That's incredible. So this is Spot right here. Can you tell me a little bit about the kind of work he does?

ROBERT PLAYTER: So Spot's being used in industrial sites to keep people safe to do repetitive work. One of the strong applications is industrial or enterprise asset management. So we configure Spot with different sensors. It can walk around an industrial site and really monitor the health of that manufacturing site. The goal is to prevent untimely shutdowns of that equipment. Spot can detect failures early, and they can get to them and replace them, replace any failed equipment.

JEFF LAGERQUIST: So the pandemic exposed all sorts of really unique labor challenges. We saw lumber prices spike because mills had to be shut down and warehouses sort of become a hotbed for the spread of the virus. How could robots have alleviated some of that pressure?

ROBERT PLAYTER: Yeah, so we've definitely seen our industrial-- or our warehouse customers, the interest has only grown in robotics during the pandemic. They have almost 100% turnover in logistics jobs like picking and packing boxes. And so we're building robots like Stretch to go in and unload the back end of a container.

There's 800 million containers shipped around the world each year. A lot of them are just full of boxes. They're hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and there's thousands of boxes. We're building robots to do that job. So there's a lot of reception. And I don't think this is going to displace jobs, ultimately. They can't find the people to do the work.

JEFF LAGERQUIST: So I mean, I've worked in a warehouse myself. And to your point, it can be hot and exhausting and unpleasant. Will there become a day when that kind of work is no longer being done by humans?

ROBERT PLAYTER: I think a lot of the manual work will be done by robots. But you know, look, robots aren't as smart as people yet. And you have to deal with unexpected circumstances. We're always going to need to manage the robots. And so I see an upskilling path for people in these jobs to become robot operators, instead of doing the backbreaking work, because these robots are much easier to interact with than the previous generation. And it won't take a college degree to operate them.

JEFF LAGERQUIST: That's exactly what I wanted to ask. How challenging is it to operate Spot here?

ROBERT PLAYTER: It's almost trivial. Right? So the robot, its intelligence handles a lot of the complexity. And so you just give it very high-level commands about what to do, sort of point it in a direction or lay down a route, and it'll autonomously do that work on its own. So really, we want to build robots that are approachable and easy to manage, and ultimately that you can interact with and you just understand what it's doing, partly by it gesturing to you sort of what it's doing next.

JEFF LAGERQUIST: So you guys plan to release a new robot every sort of three to five years to tackle another workplace challenge. How do you make those decisions? Do you, like, look at labor economics and job shortages? Or is it sort of where robots are most able to deliver the most results?

ROBERT PLAYTER: I mean, you're going down the right path there. We really want to build robots that are technically differentiated, so push the boundaries of robotics, but also that have a need in the market. And robots can't do everything yet. So we've got to find juicy crossover between what robots can actually do and what's valuable, and find that intersection. And that's what we did with Stretch. And the next robot, which we hope will come out in a few years, will probably be pushing in the direction of more dexterous manipulation tasks, perhaps in a manufacturing environment.

JEFF LAGERQUIST: How long before, like, a robot would have something comparable to the dexterity of a human hand?

ROBERT PLAYTER: Oh, boy. That's tough, right? It took us decades to get locomotion to really work. I think we have decades before you can approach the dexterity of the human hands.

JEFF LAGERQUIST: OK. People have a fear of robots sort of replacing them in the workforce. And of course, we've seen, you know, Hollywood, "The Terminator," what have you, have instilled a little bit of fear on that end. How do you help people sort of get over that and see these machines in a different light?

ROBERT PLAYTER: Yeah. So you know, people have a history of telling scary stories about robots. Literally, it's been 100, maybe 101 years since scary robot stories have been told. And so I think a lot of it is fed by Hollywood. Honestly, these robots, again, their intelligence is quite limited. They have no internal emotional state. They don't get mad. They're not as smart as we are. And honestly, I think they're under our control, and we're going to program to be our assistants. They're not going to take over.

JEFF LAGERQUIST: OK. I do know that the NYPD did end the pilot program with Boston Dynamics. Can you tell me a little bit about why that happened and what is going on now with the fire department in that city?

ROBERT PLAYTER: Yeah. So yeah, the publicity definitely got ahead of the NYPD a little bit. The police force was using the robot in a way that really enhanced safety. It was intervening with dangerous people who were maybe barricaded in a room and probably held a weapon. They were using the robot to try to communicate with that person, especially if they had hostages.

So the robot was not being used in an offensive way. It was really keeping the police and a suspect separated from each other in a way that improves safety. But we and the public safety customers just need to do a better job of signaling how this technology will be used, that it'll be used to keep people safe, that it won't be used in an offensive or threatening fashion. The fire department I think has another tack. Obviously, fire people-- firemen keep people safe. And so I think the story sort of more naturally resonates there.

JEFF LAGERQUIST: Yeah, for sure. You've obviously been with Boston Dynamics for quite some time, and the company has changed hands a few times, from Google to SoftBank, and now Hyundai Motors has that 80% stake. How has the changes in ownership sort of guided the work you do?

ROBERT PLAYTER: Well, it's interesting. I think the-- all of those companies did-- helped us tremendously on our trajectory. Before Google, we were a research company. And really, Larry Page first started pushing us to build a product. But transitioning from that research model to a production model has taken time. We had to advance the state of the art.

Hyundai is a great owner. They're really accelerating our pivot to commercialization. They have manufacturing expertise. They're going to help us create these things more efficiently and lower the cost. And it really matches with Hyundai's mission, which is a mobility mission. And we're a mobile robot company. So it's really a perfect match.