Boston Dynamics and The Late Sir Terry Pratchett

Everyone knows how driverless cars will work: they will be like ordinary cars, except you read a book rather than acting as pilot. And so, people’s understanding of what a technology can do is clouded by what the old technology it replaces does. Which means people without imagination, Head of IBM Thomas Watson, for example, say things like

There may be a world market for maybe five computers

and get it wrong. In 1943, computers were used for cryptography, and that’s it. (At least he knew what a “computer” was, which few did back then). Predictions are hard, especially about the future. But it’s probably worth noting here that the famous World Wide What? front page of The Sun, was in fact rather a good a spoof, by The Sun.

Boston Dynamics makes robots.


Who needs Robots? Well, like computers or the internet or driverless cars, the technology is coming. And it will change people’s behaviour in many, unpredictable ways. For example, mobile phones were conceived as portable analogues for the phone on your desk or in your hall. SMS text messaging was added as an afterthought, but became THE dominant means of communication. Calling someone is now rude, often you text first to see if a call would be convenient. Who (apart from mums) leaves voicemail messages any more? Few predicted that change in our behaviour. The smartphone is now ubiquitous, and is more about accessing the internet than calling friends, but wasn’t imagined before the internet, Except by Douglas Adams (and John Brunner of whom I’d not heard until I discussed the issue on Twitter). Driverless cars will be as close to the car, as the car is to a buggy and four. And robots, when they become ubiquitous, will be unlike anything we’ve considered.

I look at Boston Dynamics Robots, the big dog is conceived as a load carrying mule for soldiers on rough terrain, and I think of The Luggage, Rincewind’s inscrutable companion on the discworld. I suspect everyone will one day have a robot the size of a dog to carry daily necessaries, following them round. You could send your luggage to someone else, by smartphone app to pick something up. Your luggage could take your shopping home and collect it from the store for you. Large luggages could be sent on ahead with bags. Small luggages could replace handbags and briefcases. The labour and time saving would be vast, spawning whole new areas of employment, servicing and modifying your faithful electronic companion and providing for the opportunities they create to effectively be in two places at once. Freed from the ownership of motor vehicles by the fact we’ll be taking taxis everywhere, our Robot luggage will perhaps become the next status symbol around which society is built, replacing the car.

Like cars, I suspect the battery technology will be the limiting step, and like cars, I suspect the fuel cell will be the answer. Small fuel cells will one day power your smart phone too.

But think about the opportunities for people from smart phone. There are tens of thousands of app designers round the world now, a job that had barely been considered as recently as 2007, when the first iPhone was released, and that is similar to how the jobs which will be taken by the robots, will be replaced. That is why people who fear of a “post-jobs” future were wrong in 1816 and are still wrong 200 years later. The world’s only limitless resource is human ingenuity.

Anway. I for one welcome our new robot overlords, and this guy should totally be locked up.


7 replies
  1. bilbaoboy
    bilbaoboy says:


    You are absolutely right in that this will change things in ways we cannot yet comprehend.

    Opportunities? Myriad.

    Progress is inevitable. We need to make the most of it for our race (all colours included).

  2. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    It might be interesting combining robotic carriers, driverless vehicles, real time AI routing and standardized mini-container modules (say scaled to c.100 to an ISO 20 shipping container).

    I think we can get some ideas about some future applications by looking at the past.
    It's often struck me when you see films of pre-WW1 railway stations: the huge numbers of porters and volume of luggage being moved.
    And for the middle class in the same period home delivery of groceries was the norm.

    How many people would use trains for medium distance holiday journeys if there was no need for a car to make luggage manageable.

    Convenience of not needing to wait in all day to get moderately bulky orders delivered, if they can be sent to a local routing centre then held for dispatch when convenient for the buyer, with no manual handling costs.

    I've no doubt a distribution industry specialist could come up with a lot more.


  3. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    Why cart luggage about? If your data is 'in the cloud' why do you need to carry your laptop? You don't carry your bed about when you use a hotel so why carry your night clothes? Why carry your day clothes either?

    If the car can drive itself why do you need to own it?

    I believe early computers were used to calculate ballistic tables, people knew how to write those sorts of programs, decryption is not so obvious.

    I'm old enough to remember when we were told that computers would 'take off' when core store(!) would be one cent per bit, so that would make an 8Gb memory stick worth about $640M. I don't believe anyone expected that so much storage would be available for 'pocket money' prices, (and that 90% of it is used for silly kitten videos!).

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    When robots took a lot of physical jobs humans moved onto move cognitive jobs hence why fears of a post job future back then was moved wrong.

    When robots can do the cognitive jobs also what jobs are left for humans? That's why comparing today's fears about a post-jobs future with the same fears that happened two centuries ago is invalid.

    I would love to be proved wrong with that. I do find it heartbreaking though the way so many humans welcome their own economic redundancy, even if it is only potentially, The prospect is very real.

  5. Green Eagle
    Green Eagle says:

    An addendum to Anonymous' comment, "I believe early computers were used to calculate ballistic tables…"

    Up to World War II, ballistics tables used to aim artillery were vast books, involving millions of calculations, all of which were compiled by thousands of people who did the math by hand. These people were called "computers." When, in World War II, machines were invented to do this job too, they also were called computers, and there you go.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *