Around the world, tech firms are stepping up efforts to implant the next generations of robots with cutting edge AI.

Humanoid robots have been floating around for years. We’re all familiar with the experience of watching a new annual video from Boston Dynamics depicting increasingly Terminator-reminiscent robots doing assault courses and getting the snot kicked out of them like they’re on a $2,000 per day masculinity retreat.  However, until recently, even the excitement surrounding Boston Dynamics’ robot dog Spot seemed to have died down. The consensus, it seemed, was that the road to robots that walk, talk, and hopefully don’t enslave us all to work in their bitcoin mines (I still don’t know what Bitcoin is so I’m just going to assume it’s a scam that robots use for food) was going to be long and slow. 

Now, however, that might be changing. 

Around the world, the robotics arms race is picking up speed. This newly catalysed competition is centering on the potential for artificial intelligence (AI) to be the catalyst for the next phase in the evolution of robotics. 

This week, Pennsylvania-based tech startup Skild managed to secure $200 million in Series A funding led by Lightspeed Venture Partners, Coatue, SoftBank Group, and Jeff Bezos’ venture capital firm, among others. The intersection of AI and robotics is a sector of the tech industry that attracts big money. All in all, robotics startups secured over $4.2 billion in seed through growth-stage financing this year already. 

AI could give us a general purpose robot brain 

Skild, along with other startups like Figure (which completed a $675 million Series B round in February funded by Nvidia, Microsoft, and Amazon) and 1X (an American-Norwegian startup that secured a relatively modest $98 million in January), is focusing on using large AI models to make robots better at interacting with the physical world. 

“The large-scale model we are building demonstrates unparalleled generalisation and emergent capabilities across robots and tasks, providing significant potential for automation within real-world environments,” said Deepak Pathak, CEO and Co-Founder of Skild AI. 

What this means is that, rather than designing software to make each individual robot move, perform tasks, and interact with the world around it, Skild AI’s model will serve as a shared, general-purpose brain for a diverse embodiment of robots, scenarios and tasks, including manipulation, locomotion and navigation. 

From “resilient quadrupeds mastering adverse physical conditions, to vision-based humanoids performing dexterous manipulation of objects for complex household and industrial tasks,” Skild AI plans for its model to make the production of robotics cheaper, enabling the use of low-cost robots across a broad range of industries and applications.

Pathak added that he believes his company represents “a step change” in how robotics will scale in the future. He adds that, if their scalable general purpose robot brain works, it “has the potential to change the entire physical economy.”

Experts are inclined to agree, with Henrik Christensen, professor of computer science and engineering at University of California at San Diego, telling CNBC that “Robotics is where AI meets reality.”

Okay, now the robots are coming for your jobs

Despite a national unemployment rate that remains hovering around 4%, US companies and media outlets continue to parrot the talking point that there is a massive skills shortage in the country. The solution, according to companies that make AI-powered robots is, unsurprisingly, AI-powered robots. 

According to the US Chamber of Commerce, there are currently more than 1.7 million jobs available than there are unemployed workers, especially in the manufacturing sector, where Goldman estimates there’s a shortage of around half a million skilled workers. 

Skild claims that its model enables robots to adapt and perform novel tasks alongside humans, or in dangerous settings, instead of humans.

“With general purpose robots that can safely perform any automated task, in any environment, and with any type of embodiment, we can expand the capabilities of robots, democratise their cost, and support the severely understaffed labour market,” said Abhinav Gupta, President and Co-Founder of Skild AI.

However, Andersson told CNBC that “When it comes to mass adoption or even something closely resembling mass adoption, I think we’ll have to wait quite a few years. Probably a decade at least.” 

Nevertheless, companies across the world are fighting to leverage the power of large AI models to spur the next generation of robots. “A GPT-3 moment is coming to the world of robotics,” said Stephanie Zhan, Partner, Sequoia Capital, one of the companies that led Skild AI’s funding round. “It will spark a monumental shift that brings advancements similar to what we’ve seen in the world of digital intelligence, to the physical world.”

  • Data & AI

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