Agility Robotics will soon be able to make 10,000 bipedal humanoid robots per year. When I spoke with Agility CEO Damion Shelton and CTO Melonee Wise onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco last week, they also claimed that the company is creating jobs rather than taking them from humans.
“If you start with an environment that was designed for people, a robot that can move easily through that environment would end up with arms and legs,” says Shelton, explaining why Digit has a pair of arms and legs in order to be effective at its warehousing tasks. It turns out that a lot of the design parameters that went into designing Digit are actually straight out of the nearest Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) handbook.
Agility launched the robot a few months ago. Making a humanoid robot with arms and legs makes sense, but the company also decided to add a pair of eyes. . . . They aren’t used for looking around — there are a bunch of sensors on the robot that take care of that — but instead the controversial decision helps the robot communicate.
“Having the eyes gives you a sense of where the robot is about to go,” says Wise. “It helps to direct the human gaze to areas of the robot that are important for them to care about — for example, the LED ring that’s on the sides of the head. And things like that so that people see Digit is in a good state and excited to be in the world.”
The robot can carry around 35 lb (~12 kg) and can reach up about 4.5 feet (~1.4 meters). It could reach higher, the team says — in fact, the arms can probably reach seven to eight feet, judging from the onstage demonstrations, but the robot would rarely need to, given the designs of warehouses. Humans aren’t expected to pick up boxes from seven feet in the air, so neither are robots.
“OSHA applies to worker safety. And if a robot is in its environment, in a person’s environment, that’s a worker. So the robot has to comply with safety related to that worker. Now, if workers were to leave the entire facility suddenly, it still doesn’t solve all the problems because eventually someone has to go in and fix a robot,” said Wise. “If we get someday magically to the point where robots are fixing robots, it’s turtles all the way down, and then we’re good. But up until that point, OSHA is most likely going to be involved because at some point, someone will be servicing a robot.”
No guns or explosives . . .
Agility Robotics wrote an open letter to the robotics industry — alongside Open Robotics, Boston Dynamics and others — saying that general-purpose robots shouldn’t be weaponized. Isaac Asimov would be proud. We talked a little about why that is.
“We had started talking with [Boston Dynamics] about a year and a half ago, talking through what we want to see the industry evolve into. Something all of us are quite sensitive to is the desire to not have a robot ever hurt someone, whether accidentally or intentionally,” Shelton said. “The easy thing to prune off is like no intentionally hurting people. There’s just no reason to do that. It doesn’t help the industry. And if our goal was to have robots actually improve quality of life, it’s very hard to see a universe where intentionally hurting people is on that roadmap.”
The way this is implemented for Agility is a clause in the user agreement making sure that end users cannot deploy their robots to hurt people.
“We include an end user statement with all of our robot sales and specify that contractually, so it’s not just not attaching a weapon to the robot,” Shelton said. “It’s not using the robot in any way that can harm people or animals or even be threatening.”
They won’t take your jobs, either
Perhaps more surprising was the team’s insistence that although there’s a pretty common trope about robots taking people’s jobs, these robots won’t do that.
“When I started with Fetch Robotics in 2014, there was a 600,000 job gap. So that means they could not find 600,000 people to do the jobs in logistics and manufacturing,” said Wise. Since then, the problem has grown: “The gap has grown to a million people. So in all of the time that we deployed robots at Fetch Robotics, we never replaced the person because every single time we were trying to fill a gap.”
The argument is that the workforce is aging and people don’t want to do manual jobs.