Boston Dynamics says robots could be in homes in 10 to 20 years

The personal robots of the future depicted in science fiction could happen a lot sooner in this lifetime than most people think. At Yahoo Finance's Invest summit, Allie Garfinkle interviews Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Playter about the firm's premier robotics projects, "Spot" and "Stretch."

Spot is a four-legged mobile robot that can autonomously navigate warehouses, taking thermal and acoustic measurements while reading gauges to ensure safe factory operation. Playter brought an actual Spot robot on stage to demonstrate its mobility and camera vision system that allows it to move confidently without human guidance.

Stretch is Boston Dynamics' robot designed for repetitive lifting tasks like unloading shipping containers. By automating these strenuous jobs, Stretch enables warehouses to reassign human workers to more complex tasks. While starting with shipping containers, Stretch's box-moving capabilities make it flexible for various warehouse needs.

Playter emphasized the scalability and use-case value of Boston Dynamics' robots. With large upfront costs of around $100 million, three key factors must align for success: 1) effectively fulfilling the intended purpose, 2) attractiveness to buyers, and 3) providing return on investment with long-term scalability. Playter believes Boston Dynamics' advanced robots offer this sort of scalable automation solution for warehouses.

"AI is the brain, the robot is the body, and together I think we're going to build an entirely new industry that's going to change business. It's gonna change the way we live," Playter tells Yahoo Finance.

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Video transcript

ALLIE GARFINKLE: Rob, thank you so much for being here.

ROBERT PLAYTER: Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: All right, so to kick things off, we have some video that really illustrates what Boston Dynamics does. When it rolls, tell us what we'll be seeing.

ROBERT PLAYTER: Great. So you know, we've introduced two products to the world. In 2020, we launched Spot and you're seeing Purina's version of Spot here. Spot is a mobile inspection platform. It goes around the factory, taking thermal measurements, acoustic measurements, reading gauges, making sure that the factory is operating in a healthy and safe state. And this ends up being really the launching use-case. Spot's a multi-purpose robot, but this is the use-case that we think is really scalable, and that is going to grow. And so, we have customers like Chevron, Ontario Power Generation, Anheuser-Busch, Purina, folks like that.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: And next, I think I believe we're going to see Stretch.

ROBERT PLAYTER: Yeah, so Stretch is our--

ALLIE GARFINKLE: You have a knack for naming them, I have to say.

ROBERT PLAYTER: Yeah, well, thanks. Tall, right? Stretch is tall.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: How tall is Stretch.

ROBERT PLAYTER: It has to reach the top of a container, shipping container. So this is going to be a multi-purpose--

ALLIE GARFINKLE: Taller than me.

ROBERT PLAYTER: Yeah. Reaches about 10 feet. And there's about 800 million containers moved around the world each year. A lot of them are full of boxes, like you see here. This is a backbreaking, repetitive task. And so there's just a ton of boxes to move. And we started with unloading these containers first, because it was kind of a nice, safe place to start the robot. It's almost in a cage there. But ultimately, this is going to be a multi-use robot. It's going to do any box-moving task in the warehouse. We're just launching it here. And we just delivered the first units of that at the beginning of this year. Companies like DHL, and Maersk, and NFI, and Otto, are buying them.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: Now, Rob, I don't know if you've heard, but we're in a bit of an AI boom right now.


ALLIE GARFINKLE: Yeah, I know. Wild, right?


ALLIE GARFINKLE: Are we possibly on the precipice of a robotics boom?

ROBERT PLAYTER: I think it's going to be exciting. So AI is the brain, the robot is the body. And together, I think we're going to build an entirely new industry that's basically going to change business. It's going to change the way we live. So it's going to have a big impact.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: Now to illustrate that point, we actually have a special guest. Spot, if you could please come out?

ROBERT PLAYTER: Yeah, so we brought a Spot robot for-- to demo to you guys today. And today--

ALLIE GARFINKLE: Yeah, you get up, take pictures. Go have a moment.

ROBERT PLAYTER: Spot is normally it would autonomously walk around a factory. Today, Spot is being driven by Hannah Rossi here. But Spot has onboard cameras that lets it see its environment. So it knows where-- so if it goes on and off this--

ALLIE GARFINKLE: Does it get stage fright?

ROBERT PLAYTER: Not at all, not at all. But notice how it's coordinating its foot placement with the steps. Because it sees the steps, so it knows how to adjust its own behavior to the environment. And that's because there's cameras. There's actually five cameras all around the robot. And so it builds a local terrain map, and so it knows sort of what it's getting into.

And posing is cute, but it also, if you put a sensor on the back of its body, you can then point that sensor at something in the world. So legs just turn out to be a great way to get around in the world. Now we happen to have a payload today, an arm. So we can configure this robot with a variety of sensors or tools. Today we have an arm to show. And because I think the real value of robots comes not only when you have a mobile platform, but when you have something that can do actual work.

And so the Spot arm can grab things, open doors, manipulate things. And so-- and one of the things we pay attention to is coordinating the motion of the body and the arm together. You and I don't think about it, but we can walk and move and touch something. And look, I'm walking around and still touching this front into the arm easily. So doing all of that coordination takes a lot of work. And let's see. I'll show one little simple task. I have a little toy here. And--

ALLIE GARFINKLE: It is a stress cube, is my understanding.

ROBERT PLAYTER: The whole idea of these robots is, while Hannah is controlling it, she's just giving it sort of high-level gestures about what to do. The robot is managing its own motion. And it's actually going to pick up the ball itself. So she-- well, it looks like it's going to miss on the first try. So it's not flawless-- robots, there's no threat of them taking over. I assure you.


So, but they do have to manage an awful lot of their own motion in order for them to be useful, to adapt to the environment, whether the environment change. If a box is in the way today, and then it was tomorrow-- we're going to miss twice in a row. Well, anyway.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: How often does that happen?

ROBERT PLAYTER: Not that often, but sometimes. So I think the lights in here, maybe, confuse it a little bit. But we just launched the door opening module for this. So now the robot can go through a factory and see the door handle, open it, and help that move through that space. So I think we'll maybe stop there.

Maybe we'll show them one little fun gait. Yeah, we do the dancing. The dancing is not for pay or pay work. But I do think that there's an inherent interest, right? The robots are interesting for reasons that we sort of have been looking at living, moving things our whole lives. And so, it's sort of easy to emotionally identify with something that moves around in a world like that. So I think we'll let this sit down at this point. And we can proceed with--



- Oh you're giving it the command?

ROBERT PLAYTER: She is, Hannah is.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: Are you giving it commands?

ROBERT PLAYTER: Hannah is basically saying dance. But that's about it.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: Yes, but it manages its own movement. Now, I have to say, the robotics nerd in me thinks this is so cool. But the financial journalist in me sits here and says, is this scalable?

ROBERT PLAYTER: Yeah, I think that's a great question. So to make this business scale. There has to be a use case that is scalable that actually provides value to somebody. So as I said with Spot, we think that value is in industrial inspection, basically keeping a factory up and running. But it also, so there has to be value in a use case. The robot has to be able to technically do it. And then there has to be-- is it scalable? Is there enough of it?

And so getting all three of those things right is actually tough, because you have to cross the chasm. We're building a new industry here. And you've got to cross the chasm with a high value use case that is scalable, that's going to pay for the development of these machines. Which is still, this is an expensive thing to develop. There is software.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: How expensive?

ROBERT PLAYTER: Well, at least, $100 million, frankly, to launch a product. Because you have to iterate on the hardware, there's software. The first prototype, you're not going to be able to deliver because that's not going to be reliable enough. And so it takes time. Honestly, the folks who were. There's a bunch of little companies standing up now. They're saying they're going to launch a product, a humanoid, in two years. I think they're blowing smoke.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: Elon Musk is also-- actually, been talking about humanoid robots as well.

ROBERT PLAYTER: And he has and--


ROBERT PLAYTER: Well, let's see. I think he's been watching too many science fiction movies. I think the fear mongering is a little bit overblown. But you also have to take Elon seriously, right? He has a factory behind him. So if he can build the robot, he can just be his own consumer and use it. They will know how to scale manufacturing. Because you're only going to get these things to be affordable is if you can build enough of them, and get the cost down. And they have the software wherewithal. On the other hand, he's saying things that don't make sense to me.


ROBERT PLAYTER: Like You're going to purposely make the robot slow and weak because that's going to make it safe. I don't get that part. You know what? You want to make robots that are strong and powerful. And that's the only way they're going to be useful. And so, I think that's just going-- we're definitely going in the opposite direction.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: Now what are the use cases for Spot that you're most excited about? You mentioned Nestlé Purina first.

ROBERT PLAYTER: Yeah, so industrial inspection in the process industry is, I think, a huge and scalable market. But there's other really important use cases out there. We've had spot at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, it's been at Three Mile Island, it's been at Chernobyl. Any time you have a dangerous situation where you really don't want to put a person in there, send a robot for sure.

We have public safety officials, police using it. If they have to serve a warrant to a murder suspect, you don't want the cop opening the door, right? That is a very dangerous environment. And so having a robot mediate that first contact with a potential suspect is actually going to be safer for folks. And so, I think there's a whole variety of potential use cases. We definitely want to build all of our robots to be platforms and have multiple use cases. But again, you've got to have that launching use case that gets you across the chasm.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: Now we may be expecting too much from our robots, perhaps. But what are the risks look like?

ROBERT PLAYTER: Well, I don't see much risk here. I think the real--

ALLIE GARFINKLE: Godfather of AI, Geoffrey Hinton, very concerned about AI-powered battle robots. The apocalyptic view, not for you?

ROBERT PLAYTER: I just don't-- I don't see that. I think AI is going to enhance the capability of these robots. They're going to be-- but they're tools that we are building. They are going to have off switches. I just really don't see the revolution happening. It's not something that I worry about. I think I've been developing robots for 30 years. We struggle, we worked so hard to get them to do something reasonably well in repeatable fashion. We're not about to take off.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: The apocalyptic view is not in our immediate future, to say the least.

ROBERT PLAYTER: Yeah, for sure.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: Got to start with the cubes, I guess.


ROBERT PLAYTER: Right, right. Couldn't pick up the cube.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: But one of the other things that people often-- that often comes up when people talk about robots is the idea that robots will take jobs. What is your view on the relationship between human jobs and robotics?

ROBERT PLAYTER: So every new technology has changed work, and robotics will be the same. But the jobs this robot is doing is a job that, frankly, is so boring people don't do it very well. Do you want the job where you're walking through the factory with a clipboard, recording temperatures and pressures and gauges repetitively every day, multiple times a day? Basically, people suck at that job. They'll either not do it, or they'll do it incorrectly.

And you really want to reserve those skilled technicians for fixing the equipment, not finding the problem. And so, the robots actually going to help enhance the productivity of those people. And Stretch, I showed unloading those containers, it can be 120 degrees in the summer inside that container. That's a brutal place to work. So what's really going to happen is the people who used to unload those containers are now going to operate the robot.

We have the concept of a robot wrangler job, which is, it doesn't take an advanced degree, but the person who used to work in that warehouse is now going to enhance their skills by learning how to work with technology and manage robots. And our customers, like DHL and Maersk, are excited that is actually going to attract talent to them.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: Do you believe that in the end, robotics could even be a driver of economic growth?

ROBERT PLAYTER: Absolutely, because I think it can enhance overall human productivity.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: So is it the sort of thing that is an efficiency gain in the end?

ROBERT PLAYTER: Well part of it is efficiency. But look what's happening demographically. The rich world, the population is already declining, right? China, Japan, Korea, they don't have birth rates that are actually replacing their current population. We're going to need robots to keep up the production. And people don't want to do some of the work that these robots are doing now.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: Now in terms of what's next for Boston Dynamics, what happens now? You have Spot, you have Stretch. What's the next hill you're going to climb?

ROBERT PLAYTER: So our next-- the robot that we've been developing for years, our humanoid, Atlas, I think there's a real role for a two-handed mobile manipulation robot out there?

ALLIE GARFINKLE: What's that role? What does that look like?

ROBERT PLAYTER: Well, I think it could be in-- some place where you have more dexterous manipulation. So there's been robots in automotive factories for years. But they only do a single task in a very highly controlled environment. If you could build a robot that could pick up anything anywhere, you could then start to do this heavy lifting in a wide variety of ways, either in logistics or in manufacturing, or maybe getting your baggage to you faster than the airlines can do it right now.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: Yeah, and now we have about 30 seconds left. What does the future of robotics look like? And will these be in our homes anytime in any time in my lifetime?

ROBERT PLAYTER: Yes, within your life--

ALLIE GARFINKLE: It is my lifetime, OK.

ROBERT PLAYTER: I think it's going to take between 10 and 20 years before these things are in your homes.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: 10 to 20 is actually not as long as I was expecting.

ROBERT PLAYTER: It's not that long, right?

ALLIE GARFINKLE: No, that's not that long at all.

ROBERT PLAYTER: These are expensive right now. And we're starting with industrial applications because you have to have enough economic activity to warrant the price. But as we get better and better at these, and we generalize them, they're going to get cheaper, the capability is going to be there. And yeah, I want one in my home eventually.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: Well, you have them in your office, is my understanding.

ROBERT PLAYTER: Yeah, they're everywhere. [LAUGHS]

ALLIE GARFINKLE: Rob, thank you so, so much. Dr. Rob Playter.


ROBERT PLAYTER: Thanks, Thanks Allie.

ALLIE GARFINKLE: Spot, thank you, as well. All right. You're going to roll out. Oh, he's walking backwards. OK, OK. I can work with that.