Thursday, June 20, 2024

Students explore civilian uses for Spot robot

In an event, part of an interdisciplinary Princeton Engineering and Anthropology course, Princeton students delve into the practical applications of the costly robot Spot in civilian settings. They taught Spot line-dancing and ballet routines, resulting in over 7 million views across six TikTok videos. This has sparked discussions about robotics in entertainment and education.

The children eagerly gathered at Cotsen Children’s Library for a unique experience – meeting Spot. As Spot descended a small staircase, sat on its hind legs, and walked around on command, the excitement in the room was palpable.

This event aimed to familiarize the children with advanced technology that can sometimes be perceived as intimidating. The students from Princeton who operated Spot encouraged the children to interact with the robot, even petting it when it was turned off.

“Some asked, ‘What does the robot eat?’ Well, it doesn’t; you just stick it on your charger, like the docking station. I explained to them it’s a lot like your phone or your video game controller,” said one of the students, Vasumathi Venkat, a junior majoring in electrical and computer engineering.

The course, led by Alexander Glaser and Ryo Morimoto, offers students the opportunity to explore the societal impact of robots and gain practical experience in creating ethically responsible applications.

Supported by the 250th Anniversary Fund for Innovation in Undergraduate Education, the program aims to develop a nuanced understanding of the roles, meanings, and ethical implications of robotics in our communities.

Morimoto emphasized that while Boston Dynamics has had a complex relationship with the military in the past, the company is now shifting its focus toward civilian and commercial uses of its technology.

The team’s project became a social media sensation with the creation of a TikTok account for the robot “SPOTlight,” showcasing musical videos featuring Spot. In one video, which amassed 4.5 million views, student Gigi Schadrack line dances with the robot in a lab, both jumping up on cue. In another video with 1.4 million views, she gracefully ballet dances with the robot.

Schadrack views these TikTok videos as a means to demystify robotics, collect data, entertain, and prompt discussions about human-robot interactions.

“As a dancer, I wanted to explore how bipedal movements could be translated to a quadruped,” Schadrack said. Liora Nasi ’24 was instrumental in programming the robot’s movements, and another classmate, Wasif Sami ’25, provided an anthropological analysis of the work and its public response.

“A gift of going viral meant eliciting a wide range of comments and replies,” Sami said. “As a group, we grappled with how our playful, performative content exists in dialogue with higher-stakes impacts of technology. Navigating our audience’s reaction taught us to consciously situate our work amidst the many uses of robots, as well as to listen openly to the discordant, plural voices on the internet.” 

The adoption of Spot robots has been steadily growing, with around 1,000 units in use globally, particularly within industrial applications like Ford’s. Although the current pricing is not listed on Boston Dynamics’ website, in 2020, the Spot robot was valued at nearly $75,000.

Lead product designer Leland Hepler emphasizes that the main goal of Spot is to alleviate human apprehension and foster a sense of ease with the robot. This is accomplished through various visual indicators, including its vibrant yellow color, directional light signals to anticipate Spot’s movements and its animal-like quadrupedal design.