Thursday, August 27, 2020

The robot revolution has arrived

Machines now perform all sorts of tasks: They clean big stores, patrol borders, and help autistic children. But will they make life better for humans?

With a firm yet delicate grip, a robot hand at the Robotics and Biology Laboratory at the Technical University of Berlin picks up a flower with its pneumatic fingers. Recent advances have brought robots closer than ever to mimicking human abilities.

By David Berreby
Photographs by Spencer Lowell
National Geographic

If you’re like most people, you’ve probably never met a robot. But you will.

I met one on a windy, bright day last January, on the short-grass prairie near Colorado’s border with Kansas, in the company of a rail-thin 31-year-old from San Francisco named Noah Ready-Campbell. To the south, wind turbines stretched to the horizon in uneven ranks, like a silent army of gleaming three-armed giants. In front of me was a hole that would become the foundation for another one.

A Caterpillar 336 excavator was digging that hole—62 feet in diameter, with walls that slope up at a 34-degree angle, and a floor 10 feet deep and almost perfectly level. The Cat piled the dug-up earth on a spot where it wouldn’t get in the way; it would start a new pile when necessary. Every dip, dig, raise, turn, and drop of the 41-ton machine required firm control and well-tuned judgment. In North America, skilled excavator operators earn as much as $100,000 a year.

The seat in this excavator, though, was empty. The operator lay on the cab’s roof. It had no hands; three snaky black cables linked it directly to the excavator’s control system. It had no eyes or ears either, since it used lasers, GPS, video cameras, and gyroscope-like sensors that estimate an object’s orientation in space to watch over its work. Ready-Campbell, co-founder of a San Francisco company called Built Robotics, clomped across the coarse dirt, climbed onto the excavator, and lifted the lid of a fancy luggage carrier on the roof. Inside was his company’s product—a 200-pound device that does work that once required a human being.  Read more >>