The world is moving with increasing speed toward greater integration of robots into our daily lives, and we’d better begin to prepare ourselves. Next year, in Austin, Texas, a fleet of robot dogs, like the one pictured above, will begin making deliveries on the University of Texas campus. The robots, built by Boston Dynamics and Unitree, will deliver items to faculty, staff, and students pursuant to a network accessible via a smartphone app. Those who frequent the UT campus will have to get used to the sight of the robot dogs speeding down sidewalks and leaping up stairways as they make their appointed delivery rounds.
The robot dogs not only will make deliveries, they will be part of a five-year research program that will examine human-robot interpersonal (or, perhaps, intertechnological) dynamics. The idea is to study, and then modify, the behavior of the robots “to determine how to operate safe and useful networks of robots that are meant to adjust their behavior to integrate with human populations.” The project leader for the study states: “In addition to programming robots to perform a realistic task such as delivering supplies, we will be able to gather observations to help develop standards for safety, communication, and behavior to allow these future systems to be useful and safe in our community.”
It’s not clear exactly what the robot dogs will be delivering and under what circumstances, which I think will make a big difference in assessing the human-robot interactions. If the dogs will be making pizza and beer runs to dorms and off-campus apartments, I predict that students who have imbibed in a few adult beverages and perhaps some mood-altering substances will get a bit of a shock when they open the door and find a bright yellow robot dog that moves like the herky-jerky devil dogs on Ghostbusters bringing their pizza with everything and six-pack of Lone Star.
I also predict that the people who are part of the “keep Austin weird” movement will really like this development.