We can’t talk about robot dogs without starting with “Black Mirror.”
Set in a post-apocalyptic future, the episode “Metalhead” tells the tale of a lone survivor fleeing from a pack of murderous robot dogs single-minded in their mission to snuff out any remaining human life. Freaky, right?
Warnings from science fiction and news of recent breakthroughs are enough to make anyone nervous about the future of robotics. With AI technologies, and now robots, becoming an increasingly common part of everyday life, researchers with The University of Texas at Austin have set out to answer the question: Can humans and robots coexist?
The Largest Human-Robot Experiment to Date
In early 2023, UT Austin became home to a fleet of robot dogs: modified versions of Boston Dynamics’ Spot and the Unitree B1. The mechanical canines — referred to as quadruped robots by researchers — travel around campus delivering free supplies, including wipes and hand sanitizer, to members of the UT Austin community.
But that’s not really why they’re here.
As part of UT’s Good Systems research grand challenge, the robot dogs are being studied by an interdisciplinary team of UT Austin researchers. The five-year study explores whether humans and robots can coexist in public spaces and promises to yield the most extensive data about human-robot encounters in public settings to date. Rest assured, the robots will be chaperoned — or, shall we say, kept on a leash — at all times.
“We’re more interested in the interactions and what we can learn from groups of people’s reactions when they see the robots,” said Keri Stephens, Ph.D., co-director of the Technology and Information Policy Institute. “And then that gives us a lot of feedback with how we might need to adjust the robots to make people more comfortable around them.”
Spot: The Robot Dog from Boston Dynamics
Able to navigate difficult terrain and unable to protest, Spot is the perfect emissary to carry out autonomous missions. Savvy industry leaders are sending out the “agile mobile robot” to conduct thermal inspections, scan hazardous environments and deliver medicine.
Can We Keep It?
Let’s be honest: Robot dogs are creepy. For all their bells and whistles, they lack the face, tail, and derpy smiles that make real dogs so loveable. And their movements, while graceful, are so precise that they can be unsettling. Unless, of course, they’re dancing to “Uptown Funk.”
There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the future of robotics: AI tools could replace as many as 300 million full-time jobs. But that’s exactly why the work conducted at UT Austin and the Good Systems project is so important.
UT Austin Leads the Pack
AI-powered robots can perform dangerous, repetitive tasks that no human should have to do. Besides, their speed and efficiency mean that we’ll be seeing a lot more of them as the technology advances. So why not help ensure that this technology is properly integrated into society?
The Good Systems research team is composed of not only engineers but also experts in communications, liberal arts and community and regional planning, among other fields. Together, they’re asking not only what AI should do but also what it shouldn’t.
“Twenty or thirty years from now, when we have robots all around us, what should that future look like?” asked Assistant Professor Joydeep Biswas, Ph.D., whose work focuses on robot navigation in human environments. “How should robots adapt themselves to be more useful and less of an annoyance to humans?”
Scratch That Mechanical Engineering Itch
As much as we love talking about robot dogs, we can only say so much before getting lost in the highly technical aspects of such a project. If you’ve enjoyed this read and want to learn more, you might want to consider pursuing an education in mechanical engineering.
What a Mechanical Engineering Education Can Do for You
Robots will play an increasingly important role in society. Whether that fills you with joy or dread, you should be prepared for a future defined by automation, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things.
At UT Austin, you can gain the knowledge, skills and credentials needed to ensure your place in an industry defined and constantly redefined by robotic advancements. We offer two 100% online mechanical engineering programs to choose from:
A comprehensive exploration of current mechanical engineering topics, this 30-credit-hour program offers the foundational expertise needed to become a leader in engineering. Rigorous courses like Applied Thermodynamics, Materials Science and Engineering and Product Design Lab will challenge you to take your skills to the next level. Graduate with a new perspective on the engineering field and your place in it, not to mention a prestigious degree that employers are sure to notice.
Able to be completed in as little as one year, this 9-credit-hour program focuses solely on controls system engineering. Three courses — Introduction to Automatic Control; Statistical Methods for Process Control Manufacturing; and Modeling, Simulation, and Control of Physical Systems — are all that separate you from a certificate proving your mastery of the subject.
Who, knows, you might just end up building the next generation of robot dogs.