LIKE WITH JETPACKS and flying cars, the Power Loader from Aliens is a robot we’ve been promised for a long time. That’d be the exoskeleton that Sigourney Weaver donned to beat the tar out of the movie’s eponymous alien Queen, of course. Jetpacks are kinda here, flying cars … almost, and now a real-life Power Loader has finally arrived, and it’s orders of magnitude more impressive than the suit of fiction.
Behold the Guardian GT from Sarcos Robotics, which in all honesty is full-tilt bonkers. Bonkers in the sense that unlike the clunky Power Loader, these 7-foot-long arms replicate human motions with incredible smoothness and accuracy, each limb lifting 500 pounds, then turning around and manipulating the most delicate of objects. Watching it in action is both hypnotic and highly unsettling.
A big problem in robotics right now is manipulation. You take for granted how easy it is for you to, say, pick up a piece of paper off a table. But imagine a robot trying that with clutzy metal fingers. No matter how strong a robot may be, it’s still miles away from human dexterity.
But with the Guardian GT has a couple of advantages that make it remarkably dexterous. For one, it’s kinematically equivalent, meaning it’s arranged like a human, so the operator is controlling what is essentially a sized-up version of their own body. “The distance between those stereo cameras and the shoulder is the same ratio as you have in your own human body,” says Ben Wolff, CEO of Sarcos. Same goes for the distance between the shoulder and the elbow and the elbow and the wrist. “So it’s very intuitive. That kinematic equivalent concept enables a brand new operator with no training at all to be able to get into the machine.”
On top of that, the robot uses force feedback, so the operator can feel the environment through the machine’s hand (which consists of three fingers instead of five). Imagine trying to lift a mug if you could see it but not feel it. With force feedback, the pilot can feel when the robot’s hand makes contact with even small objects like switches and buttons. The robot can even pop open an electrical box with the tippy-tip of one of its fingers.
The Guardian GT also has a dexterity advantage over other humanoid robots because it’s all custom-built. Sarcos didn’t buy hands (known more formally as end effectors) from a hand company and slap them on arms from somewhere else. Everything is customized to work in harmony.
While it all may look effortless, it’s not as if the operator isn’t feeling a thing when they lift a 1,000-pound pipe. “That’s a little disorienting, so we give a little bit of load into the arm,” Wolff says. Meaning, the robot pushes back a tiny bit. “So instead of lifting a thousand pounds you feel like you’re lifting five.” (How it’s able to do this without the herky-jerkiness of other robots comes down to special actuators, the bits that move and bend the arms. What exactly is special about them, Wolff declines to say, because he’s a good businessman.)
Just imagine this thing on a construction site. Doing something like lifting and joining two pipes would require a crane and maybe five or six workers, who would be freed up to do other jobs that require a more human touch (fine manipulation, for instance). With the Guardian GT, all it takes is one supercharged human. It still requires a lot of coordination, sure, but the robot takes the strain out of the equation.
What’s interesting about this workplace robot is that it’s collaborative—a human is always in control. And that’s what the future of work looks like, especially heavy industry. Fields like construction and agriculture are already facing severe labor shortages, and the machines are poised to pick up the slack. Think automated construction tractors and robots that help humans harvest crops without all the stooping. In the very near future we’ll be working alongside robots, as opposed to robots outright replacing us.
So the death of human labor, it seems, has been greatly exaggerated. “While I think that we will see increasing amounts of autonomy and AI,” says Wolff, “I think the real role in work generally is for us to find as humans how to maximize the utility of robots. Allow them to do what they’re really good at while still relying on what humans are best at, which is wisdom and judgment.”
Then there are the jobs that humans simply can’t do. Because the Guardian GT rolls on either tracks or wheels, the operator can drive it into danger. Think exploring toxic environments and decommissioning nuclear power plants. With the inherent dexterity of the machine, it could easily manipulate things made for humans hands, like valves and buttons.
And, if the time comes, it might save us all from aliens. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.