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Meet the company building robots to augment – not replace – humans

Published Nov 29th, 2017 11:43AM EST
Image: Sarcos

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If you believe the hype, many of us — maybe even most of us — are in danger of eventually finding ourselves made redundant by faster and more efficient machines, reduced to taking whatever jobs robots can’t do or can’t yet do better than a human. Just accept it, say so many academics, technologists and leading edge thinkers. It’s the reality that’s coming.

And then there’s Sarcos, a Salt Lake City-based robotics company that has, well, a different idea about the way things ought to be.

Sarcos, in short, is an enterprise that’s building exoskeletons and human-scale robots that are meant to augment — not replace — humans. Think, moving heavy steel beams in a shipyard or deconstructing a disaster facility or even going in to a hazardous site to turn valves to shut down fuel or other instruments. The company, from CEO Ben Wolff on down, sees its mission as using robots and exoskeletons to save lives and prevent injury in the workplace.

And to that end, the company has, among other things, a line of human-scale exoskeletons it’s working at the moment to bring to fruition so that it can begin marketing them commercially by the end of 2019.

“We want to make peoples’ lives better,” Wolff tells BGR. “We want to keep them from getting injured in the first place. And we want to give employers and their workers the ability to be more productive and efficient in their daily jobs without needing to replace human beings with robots.

“There’s a whole industry out there focused on making robots that will replace human workers. And we’re trying to swim up against that stream. We say, no, let’s create more jobs by merging the best of both worlds. Merging what humans are good at it – which is the way we think through things — with enhanced strength and endurance and the precision of machines. You do that, and I think we’re actually creating jobs rather than taking them away.”

It’s not, of course, a conversation that’s exclusive to Sarcos, by any means. Research out earlier this year from Daron Acemoglu of MIT and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University published data via the National Bureau of Economic Research showing that every new robot added to the U.S. economy reduces employment by 5.6 workers. And the additional robots also help drive down wages.

At the end of 2016, International Data Corp. also published a report with findings that include that by 2019, 30 percent of leading organization will either have a chief robotics officer role or they’ll define some robotics-specific function within their enterprise. Moreover, according to IDC, robotics growth will continue at such a fast clip that by 2020 some 35 percent of robotics-related jobs will be vacant, driving up average salary increases by at least 60 percent in a race for talent.

And here comes Sarcos, which wants to stand against that tide, in a way.

Of its robot exoskeletons, the Guardian GT is Sarcos’ largest. It’s mounted on a vehicle base that can be powered by batteries, diesel, or natural gas. It has a single or dual-armed system that can lift and manipulate payloads up to 1,000 pounds, dexterously, and with no human effort. The system can also be operated remotely.

Sarcos is custom-building those units to customer requirements.

“We’ve got a range of products we’re coming to market with that we think of as exoskeletons,” Wolff said. “With the GT being the largest. It’s a machine that a human can either be inside of and operate from inside the machine, or it can be operated on a remote-controlled basis, at a distance. But at the end of the day, it’s a machine that tremendously augments human strength and endurance and allows human-like dexterity to be performed by this very large machine.

“We custom-design and build the GT for specific use cases and applications. We’re working with a handful of customers right now on their specific use cases. The other exoskeletons we’re working on that are more human-scale exoskeletons, those will be coming to market commercially by the end of 2019.”

A little over a year ago, the company numbered 17 employees. Today it has more than 60, with some 20-odd job openings to fill. It was founded in the early 1980s as a spin-out of the University of Utah and has been one of the top recipients of DARPA funding over the past three decades.

In September 2016, Caterpillar, GE Ventures and Microsoft led a financing round to provide Sarcos with growth capital. The company has more than $265 million invested in the development of its technologies and more than 300 patents related to its innovations.

“We’re very much focused,” Wolff says, “on how to augment human performance and to enable people to do tasks that are dangerous or difficult or to operate in dangerous or difficult environments in a way that keeps people out of harm’s way. And we focus on machines that are biologically inspired.”

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.

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