For a championship weightlifter, performing a barbell curl with 200 pounds is tough. Get in half a dozen reps and you’d rightly feel like Superman in the gym. But what if your job was to perform bicep curls of anything up to 200 pounds, eight hours a day, five days a week? And what if, rather than simply lifting the weights, you had to dexterously manipulate them into place so that they could be slotted together with other 200 pound objects? Oh, and you had to do it in such a way that you would remain injury free, potentially continuing your weightlifting career until a mandatory retirement age of, say, 66 or 67?
The obvious answer is that you’d choose a different career. Nobody could carry out a job like that, certainly not if they hoped to keep their body in halfway working order. That’s where a company called Sarcos Robotics comes in.
For more than 35 years, the Salt Lake City, Utah company has been building robotics devices for a range of applications, from undersea salvage robots for the United States Navy to robot pirates and dinosaurs for theme parks. Then, at around the turn of the century, it was approached by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, with a tantalizingly ambitious proposal: To build the world’s first battery-powered, full body industrial exoskeleton. Such a suit would, DARPA hoped, be able to augment the physical capabilities of U.S. soldiers; giving them a servo-assisted boost to help make them faster, stronger, bigger.
“DARPA has a saying: they only want to fund things that are ‘DARPA hard,’” Sarcos CEO Ben Wolff told Digital Trends. “That means things that are so uniquely hard enough that no-one else in the world is insane enough to try and get across the goal line￼.” Building a robot exosuit the equivalent of Aliens’ Power Loader most certainly counts.
Jump forward to 2019, and Sarcos is finally about to reach its goal. In early 2020 it will ship the first “alpha units” of its Guardian XO powered exosuit to initial customers, including the U.S. military. This suit will grant wearers the ability to repeatedly lift and manipulate objects weighing up to 200 pounds without breaking a sweat (or anything else for that matter). While for most of us this marks only the start of real life exosuits, for Sarcos it is the culmination of phase one of a major journey in its history.
“Back in 2000, would our team have thought that it would’ve taken until 2020 to get to where we are now? No,” Wolff said. Having joined Sarcos in 2015, the company’s exosuit project was already a stroppy teenager by the time he came along. “It has been a long row to hoe, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent, countless man hours, and a maniacal focus on trying to get to something that is robust and useful in the field.”
Come 2020, it will all be worth it. Hopefully.￼
From science fiction to science fact
The idea of a wearable robot, also known as a power exoskeleton, has long been ingrained in popular culture. Today, the most popular reference point is likely Marvel’s Iron Man, the aforementioned Power Loader, or perhaps the exosuits seen in movies such as 2014’s Tom Cruise vehicle, Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow. But for the purists it traces back further; certainly as far back as the augmented mobile infantry power suits described in Robert Heinlein’s 1959 science fiction novel Starship Troopers.
“What was so gratifying for me when I went back and read that book for a second time as an adult in my role at Sarcos, as opposed to reading it as a kid, [is that] I realized that we have actually created a physical manifestation of what Heinlein described,” Wolff said. “At least, when it comes to the intuitive nature of the suit.”
In Heinlein’s world the dream is that the power suit would effortlessly augment wearers’ abilities. Soldiers in a war don’t want to be fiddling around with a non-intuitive machine; they want something that, to paraphrase the late Steve Jobs, “just works.” The exosuit was therefore birthed from the same place as the original dream of the cyborg. In a 1960 essay, the coiners of the term “cyborg” wrote that it is an “organizational system in which such robot-like problems are taken care of automatically and unconsciously, leaving man free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel.” (Or, in the case of a robot exosuit, whatever else you might be required to do while wearing it.)
Sarcos is far from the first group to be tackling the challenge of building a real life power suit. In 1965, General Electric teamed with aeronautical engineers from Cornell University to build an exoskeleton called Hardiman. It ultimately demonstrated a functioning arm which could make lifting 1,500 pounds feel like lifting 44 pounds. But it required a small room full of generators and hydraulic pumps to operate. That could prove a challenge to use in the field.
“[The Guardian XO suit] allows you to move in virtually all the ways that humans normally move”
Others have tried, too, but Sarcos is convinced that its approach is the best yet — at least as far as military or industrial applications requiring heavy lifting are concerned.
“[The Guardian XO suit] allows you to move in virtually all the ways that humans normally move,” Wolff said. “We have full range of motion in upper and lower body. It really is almost uncanny. It’s so intuitive to use, precisely because it doesn’t impede your range of motion. You can move at human speed. It doesn’t require thought about how to use the machine. That means you can just focus on doing the job.”
As noted, that job isn’t just about heavy lifting. It’s also about being able to manipulate those heavy objects, such as fitting together multiple components for assembly. “Today we use overhead cranes and forklifts to do some of these tasks,” Wolff continued. “But they simply don’t have the level of dexterity that humans have.”
The Guardian XO is untethered and fully electrical, with a runtime of two hours, although its battery packs can be swapped out to keep it going for a full day. It takes only seconds to put on and take off, and just minutes for a new user to learn how it operates. Wolff believes that it will transform work in the construction, manufacturing, and logistics fields, both for military use and that of private companies. There are approximately 300 million people across the developed world who engage in physically demanding work on a daily basis. This technology could help them.
“Imagine a world where people can work those kinds of jobs as long as they want to; where you don’t have to retire because their bodies are injured,” he said. “Or a world where people of all different shapes, sizes and age ranges can do physically demanding work. We’re levelling the playing field for a much broader swath of the potential workforce.”
Not here to replace you
The usual narrative when it comes to robots and the workforce is that they’re here to replace us. A robot that does your job faster than you can — and doesn’t cause pesky issues like occasionally getting sick, taking vacations, or wanting to get some sleep after a hard day’s work — is an intimidating prospect. A combination of breakthroughs in robotics tech and new startups’ desire to find areas ripe for automation means that workers in many roles feel like they’re on the cusp of being, to quote another sci-fi classic, terminated.
Wolff has a different take on things. Just like the original vision of the cyborg, he believes that robots are here to augment us; not to do away with us.
“Automation can’t solve all of the problems,” he said. “Automation can’t deal with the challenges of complex, unstructured environments. There are lots of places where human intelligence is still required to get the job done.” Despite advances in areas ranging from A.I. smarts to cheaper, low-power components, he believes robots won’t meaningfully replace humans in every sphere for “decades and decades to come.”
“Automation can’t solve all of the problems”
It relates to the idea of Moravec’s paradox, the observation by A.I. and robotics researchers that high-level reasoning requires comparatively little computation, while low-level sensorimotor skills require significantly more computational resources. In other words, the hard stuff is easy; the easy stuff is hard.
Imagine if, right now, you had to move from wherever you’re reading this article to your next mode of transportation. If you’re in an office, you may need to get out of your chair, navigate to an elevator or flight of stairs, travel down a couple of floors, leave the building, cross a parking lot, and get into your car. For an able-bodied human, this is a task so simple we’d barely need to think about it. For a robot, this would be a monumental achievement. It’s so complex, in fact, that Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak has termed a variation on it the “coffee test” to demonstrate what we might consider human-level artificial general intelligence. Woz suggests that, to pass the coffee test, a machine must be able to enter an average American home and figure out how to make a cup of coffee. Easy for humans; right now impossible for machine intelligence due to the complexity of the world that we’ve created.
“Your brain is created to be able to take the input of literally billions of data points and use these to inform every single action you take, every movement of your hand and arm, everything you look at,” Wolff said. “Your brain is processing all of this in a way you can’t possibly imagine our machine would be able to replicate, without even thinking, you are performing that￼￼ activity flawlessly, without giving it a second thought.￼”
The best the human and machine worlds have to offer
Wolff thinks that the ideal pairing of human and machine will “combine the best of human intelligence, wisdom, and judgement with the strength, endurance, and precision of machines.”
Will Sarcos Robotics be the company that manages to create this ideal pairing? Boasting some undoubtedly exciting tech and what Wolff describes as “one of the longest tenured robotics teams in the world,” he’s confident that it can.
We’ll have a better idea early next year, when the first Guardian XO alpha units ship to customers in the military and heavy industry. Feedback from that initial rollout will then be used to make changes for initial production, with the finished commercial units going on sale in Q3 2020, priced at $100,000 per unit or rented out as one of the world’s first “robots-as-a-service” subscription model.
And after similar robot exosuits are installed in warehouses and other facilities around the world, how much longer until we get the flying Iron Man exosuit that Hollywood has promised us? “When someone gives me the Arc reactor then we can start talking about it,” Wolff laughed.
Maybe give that one another 20 years!
- Exoskeletons with autopilot: A peek at the near future of wearable robotics
- Evolving, self-replicating robots are here — but don’t worry about an uprising
- Meet the Xenobots: Living, biological machines that could revolutionize robotics
- Language supermodel: How GPT-3 is quietly ushering in the A.I. revolution
- Image-recognition A.I. has a big weakness. This could be the solution