While experts call it an impressive demonstration of balance and two-legged walking, it remains unclear what real-world uses Google or anyone could have with a legged robot in the near term.
“It will still be awhile before we see these robots in a context outside a very compelling demonstration video,” said Brian Gerkey, chief executive of the Open Source Robotics Foundation. “The thing that would really make a difference is coming up with what’s the real useful work that can be done by these sorts of platforms? I’m sure it’s there, but we just haven’t figured that out yet.”
According to Gerkey, choosing a wheeled design for a robot provides fewer challenges. While wheeled robots cannot function on rocky terrain or steps, they can navigate much of the developed world through handicap-accessible sidewalks and buildings.
The robot, which looks vaguely human with its two-legged walking, doesn’t have arms, which limits its capabilities. Most of the three-minute video includes the robot walking around outdoors and climbing stairs. In one brief clip, it appears to be cleaning stairs with an attachment on one of its feet. The robot was developed by Schaft, a Japanese subsidiary of Google’s labs.
“It’s hard to imagine that’s the most economical or practical way to clean stairs,” Gerkey said.
But, he added: “Given the investment Google made in robotics and the talent that they pulled together through acquisitions and subsequent hiring, I would really love for them to carry through and do something amazing. I think they have the potential to do it.”
Chris Atkeson, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon’s Robotics Institute, was struck by the robot’s lack of arms, and the decision to not build knees into its legs.
“The question is why build a robot with no arms?” Atkeson said. “One guess is the purpose of this robot is to walk around and make maps in places where their mapping cars can’t get to.”
The video is also notable given a Bloomberg report in March that Google planned to sell Boston Dynamics, the company that makes Atlas, the humanoid robot whose video went viral in February. According to the report, Google was concerned about a lack of near-term products. It appears Google doesn’t feel the same pessimism about Schaft’s robots.
An X spokeswoman, Jacqui Miller, said the company is defining real-world problems where super-advanced robots and other big thinking can provide practical help. The conference in Japan was not intended to be a product launch, she explained.
“In Tokyo last week the SCHAFT team, who are now part of X, presented some of their latest work, including a video of some of the situations their robot can navigate, like stairs or slippery rocks on a beach,” Miller wrote in an email. “As with all of the robotics teams that recently moved from Google to X, we’re looking at the great technology work they’ve done so far.”