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Handle robot
Boston Dynamics’ Handle robot picks up and stacks boxes. (Boston Dynamics via YouTube)

Boston Dynamics’ latest robo-creature may be cuter than its creepy robot dogs, but its potential application could nevertheless make warehouse workers wary.

The Handle robot, demonstrated in a YouTube video posted on Thursday, is a long-necked robot that looks a lot like a two-wheeled mechanical ostrich. The robot’s “head” features an arrangement of suction cups that can pick up boxes from a pallet, and then release them to make a neat stack.

Here’s how Boston Dynamics describes Handle in its video description:

“Handle is a mobile manipulation robot designed for logistics. Handle autonomously performs mixed SKU pallet building and depalletizing after initialization and localizing against the pallets. The on-board vision system on Handle tracks the marked pallets for navigation and finds individual boxes for grasping and placing.

“When Handle places a boxes onto a pallet, it uses force control to nestle each box up against its neighbors. The boxes used in the video weigh about 5 kg (11 lbs), but the robot is designed to handle boxes up to 15 kg (33 lb). This version of Handle works with pallets that are 1.2 m deep and 1.7 m tall (48 inches deep and 68 inches tall).”

Warehouses have served as demonstration venues for many of Boston Dynamics’ other creatures, including incarnations of the four-legged, doglike SpotMini (which look like the robo-Dobermans in a scary episode of the Netflix series “Black Mirror”) and its humanoid Atlas robot.

More than 1.1 million Americans work in warehousing and storage jobs, with nearly 330,000 of them classified as laborers and movers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s clear robots like Atlas and Handle are designed to take on tasks in those industry sectors.

Of course, robots have already made a big impact on warehouse work, as anyone familiar with Amazon’s fulfillment centers knows. It’s not necessarily the case that putting in a Handle robot would eliminate a human’s job. Amazon, for instance, has long relied on robotic palletizers, depalletizers, sorters and automated guided vehicles to move boxes around, under human supervision.

Nevertheless, those robo-ostriches represent an advance in the state of the art — and it’s time for policymakers who downplay automation’s potentially disruptive impact on employment trends to get their heads out of the sand.

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