Depending on your perspective, 2018 either brought us closer to salvation by way of robots, or closer to doom by way of robots: Where some see the end of meaningless work, others see the end of humanity, also meaningless. (We’re in the former camp, by the way.) Whatever your biases toward the machines, this year has been a big one for the field of robotics, which continues to roll around joyously in the convergence of falling prices, better software and hardware, and skyrocketing demand from industry.
Given that it’s That Time of Year again, we’ve collected a list of the biggest moments in robotics in 2018, from the continued ascendance of Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini quadruped to the rapid rise and fall of the home robot.
Boston Dynamics’ Robot Dog, Finally Unleashed
Taking a quick break from uploading videos of its humanoid robot Atlas doing backflips, Boston Dynamics announced that one of its machines, the four-legged SpotMini, will finally go on sale in 2019. The question now becomes: What do you do with a robot that can fight off stick-wielding humans? One idea might be to load it up with cameras to run security details, or to inspect construction sites. Whatever the case, SpotMini’s forthcoming career in the real world is a big deal for robots of all kinds, which have struggled to escape factories and labs to walk among us.
Goodbye Baxter, the Gentle Giant Among Robots
Alas, as one robot’s career begins, another ends. In October, Rethink Robotics said it was folding, meaning its most famous offering, Baxter, faces retirement. It’s hard to overstate the impact Baxter has had on robotics—because of its low price point and ease of use, it’s become the go-to research platform in universities the world over. Inevitably, though, another more advanced platform will take its place. But let’s give a hand to Baxter, the Robot That Launched a Thousand Discoveries.
The WIRED Guide to Robots
Darpa’s Robots Go Underground
Baxter had the luxury of relatively clean, dry, climate-controlled environs, but not so for the machines of Darpa’s next robotics challenge (the same variety of challenge that gave us the unintentionally hilarious face-planting bipeds of 2015). This year the far-out research wing of the Pentagon detailed a grueling underground course through caves and tunnels and bunkers. Unlike previous challenges, teams will be able to deploy a variety of robots that work together to overcome one of the most brutal environments on Earth.
Robots Take Vacations in Airbnbs
Even robots need the occasional change of scene. This year Carnegie Mellon University researchers booked their robots rooms in Airbnbs. The rooms were rented to teach the robots how to manipulate objects in unfamiliar environments. Because teaching a robot how to grasp things in the lab just won’t cut it: To get the machines to work well in the real world, researchers have to train them how to recognize objects against unfamiliar backgrounds, like patterned carpet. And yes, in case you were wondering, the owners of the Airbnbs were notified beforehand that their renters were robots. And yes, they got along famously.
Scientists Help Robots ‘Evolve.’ Weirdness Ensues
In more news in the world of robot education, researchers continued to make progress in a strange field known as evolutionary robotics. The idea is to test the “fitness” of randomly generated robot parts like legs. Limbs that move most efficiently through a simulated material like gravel are “bred” with other high performers. In the end, it works a lot like natural selection to evolve oftentimes bizarre-looking machines). It’s a potentially powerful way to develop novel robots with characteristics that human designers would never dream of.
Robotics Faces a Serious Security Problem
This year researchers took control of a bowtied bot named Herb2. That wouldn’t be news if they hadn’t done so from across the country, exploiting the Robot Operating System and its non-existent security. ROS is that way by design—users are expected to set up their own security measures. But now that ROS has become ubiquitous in labs in particular, concerns are mounting that the field of robotics is facing a security crisis.
Home Robot, Where Art Thou?
2018 was supposed to be the year of the social home robots, friendly machines that read us the weather and make our appointments. There was Jibo, the stationary robot that could dance, and Kuri, sort of an R2D2 that roamed around the home. But as quickly as they came, the home robots disappeared. So where are the helpful robots that sci-fi has promised us for so long? Part of the problem is they just don’t do much at the moment, and the other part is you’re expecting too much of them. But all that may soon change.
The Smart Robots Are the Ones Escaping Earth
All was not doom and gloom in the world of robotics this year, though. Just a few days after Thanksgiving, NASA’s newest Mars lander, called InSight, touched down on the Red Planet. The robot’s mission? To probe the depths of Mars to find out what it’s made of—literally. So how do you make sure your billion-dollar spacecraft gets there without contaminating the solar system? You start by keeping the robot insanely clean here on Earth.