Like hundreds of thousands of people this last week, Elon Musk watched the following video of the latest version of Boston Dynamics' android Atlas. It was released for SoftBank's International Robotics Exhibition (iRex 2017). Softbank, a Japanese tech multinational conglomerate, bought Boston Dynamics from Alphabet.
Robot moves like a gymnast--balance, grace and speed
The backstory on Boston Dynamics robots
Boston Dynamics first came out of MIT with a passion to build robots inspired by natural anatomy. Atlas is a science project built mostly by DARPA dollars in 2013, and has since continued to evolve as the world's most dexterous humanoid robot. A year ago, Atlas could walk out of a building, through woods and snow, but needed a big battery tether to lug his power supply around with him. He was impressive, but he ran out of charge too fast to be fully terrifying. Today, he's not just unleashed--he's able to do backflips, springs, and jumps like a gymnast. Watching the video, one commentator opined he could see this robot carrying a machine gun in 10 years. Hate to say it, but I'm not aware of any technical reason it can't carry one right now, while aiming and firing faster than you.
After watching Atlas do backflips, Musk flipped a little too:
This is nothing. In a few years, that bot will move so fast you'll need a strobe light to see it. Sweet dreams... https://t.co/0MYNixQXMw-- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 26, 2017
Then he came back with a more polished, policy-pushing perspective:
Got to regulate AI/robotics like we do food, drugs, aircraft & cars. Public risks require public oversight. Getting rid of the FAA wdn't make flying safer. They're there for good reason.https://t.co/6OXZC3UdMW-- Elon Musk (@elonmusk) November 26, 2017
Is robot fear justified?
Musk should know--he is one of the best robot builders out there, from Tesla cars to the gigafactory. He's also an expert at managing fear productively--the sacred art form of all entrepreneurs. With every incredible scientific progress, there's a good side and a bad side. Think nuclear power vs. nuclear war. With robots, it's absolutely the same. Just think, today's state-of-the-art robot muscles, according to a recent paper, can "lift 1000x its own weight." 1000x? That's like a duck lifting a truck, a researcher clarified.
It's just the beginning of what robots are capable of, as Musk pointed out.
You live in a world where artificial intelligence like Google's Alpha Go can master the game further and faster than any human player. Our own DNA can be biohacked--in a hospital setting. Artificial intelligence companies are solving all kinds of problems, faster and more adaptively than people can.
What is human is up for grabs for the first time in history.
Battlestar Galactica reruns, anyone?
Typically, when there is a powerful new innovation, legislation to manage it hasn't been too far behind. However now, our technology is growing so quickly--and won't slow down short of apocalypse or asteroid--that our legislative process pacing 10 years behind can become a relic or historical footnote unless we hasten our approach.
A Japanese multinational like Softbank, with a $100 billion dollar Vision fund, that owns a firm like Boston Dynamics among many others, isn't easy to influence any other way. Fear or fascination with the future won't have an impact. The question Atlas has for all of us today is, what kinds of problems are we willing to tackle backflips over with our legislators and policymakers right now?