In a large warehouse-style room, two humanoid robots are performing an obstacle course. Their barrel-shaped body, stuffed with microprocessors and batteries, makes it look as if they’ve been to the gym a lot but neglected their legs. They run and jump, rock back and forth, and take angular strides like those in the qualifiers for the “American Ninja Warrior” obstacle course. One runs along a beam and then, after that, passes it. For the finale, they placed themselves in opposite corners of the table and performed two synchronized upside down moves. With their feet firmly planted on the ground, they celebrated: One patted his shoulder, the other raised his arms in glee. Obviously not sweating.
This is a parkour showcase by robotics company Boston Dynamics, demonstrating the capabilities of their Atlas model. Like a regular gymnastics movement, the sequence of movements here is completely choreographed and programmed by a team of engineers. The smoothness of the movements makes it look as if the robots are digital animation, like something out of a movie: What we’re looking at is a simulation of human movement, modeled computer modeling and design. It’s just that, instead of CGI cartoon characters tricking our brains by moving 24fps, these robots are tumbling through physical reality.
Atlas is built to be humanoid, a machine that can perform a variety of tasks in a variety of environments. (Is it our species’ position as an adaptable predator, or is it simply our narcissism that makes the shape obvious?) The software only contains samples of the physical actions that the model can perform; The robot itself must calculate the amount of force it needs to apply through each of its 28 hydraulic joints to perform a given jump. Seeing it in action amazes me. It’s true that a robot’s hips rotate unnaturally because it works to keep its feet below its center of gravity on that beam, but otherwise the routine feels superhuman. I can personally do the initial jumps between angled platforms, but I’ve never been able to do the backflip, held back by the human fear of landing on my neck .
Watching the video, you can imagine what it would be like to go head-to-head with the robot’s physical prowess. Each was only a few inches shorter than me, but they were about a third heavier. They can run at a decent clip, a bit slower than 5.6 mph As a runner I know I can easily pass one, at least for its current battery life . But I wonder if I can tame it. Within minutes of watching the video, my brain went from marveling at the amazing robot to wondering: Can this thing hunt me down for sport?
Boston Dynamics has has been uploading videos like this for over a decade, listing the progress of creations as they grow more lifelike and more disturbing. One of its models is a robotic dog named Spot, which has four legs and sometimes has a “neck” attached to its head that houses a camera “head” – an Android’s best friend.
Although the company claimed that its creations were research projects, it sold Spot and leased one to the NYPD. radiation amount. But its appearance alongside police officers in an arrest at the official residence provoked enough public backlash that its trial had to end prematurely. People find robodogs both wasteful and chilling, especially when owning the organization is more likely to use force against them. It certainly doesn’t help that the robodog looks quite a bit like the gruesome killing machines in an episode of the “Black Mirror” show called “Metalhead” – perhaps because of the show’s creator Charlie Brooker, who wrote the episode, which was inspired by the earlier Boston Dynamic Videos.
We can ask the same Atlas question: What is it for? The video just shows us what it is possible do. Currently, the robots don’t want anything; In addition to not falling, they are waiting for a reason to exist. The company says the goal is to create robots that can perform common tasks on all types of terrain, but the video doesn’t include those tasks; we only see feats of agility, not the usual functions these robots would reverse. Through this gap comes sinister speculative trends.
You can imagine what it would be like to go head-to-head with the robot’s physical prowess.
There’s a video to go with the original video – one that feels as if it’s designed to assuage any fears its counterpart might have incited. It’s a behind-the-scenes video in which the engineers explain the project. The focus shifted from the adept robots to the reassuring humans who built them. There are also bloopers. We see a falling robot at the bottom of a turn; another tree faces because it loses its balance and slides in the air. There’s a shot of one robot making its final flip-flop while the other lands on its head, barefoot, and then rolls into a fetal position. We see robots getting hardware repairs. An engineer reconnects the wire. A robot is suspended in the air while it leaks liquid. Another person lies face down, hands holding his head as the technician tends to stretch his legs. When a person is recovering from surgery, it stretches out the limbs as if waking up from a restful sleep.
It’s comforting to see robots in action – they still need us! – but notably, this just makes them seem more human. When reviewing the original parkour video, I noticed a third robot in the background, lying flat, in a yoga pose. Is it resting? Has it been relegated to the sidelines because of poor performance? Is it shunned by its robotic peers?
Of course these robots have not been trained in any such social context; Their artificial intelligence only serves them to stay upright as they move from one point to another. However, it is inevitable to think that somehow, one day, they might turn rogue. We don’t know what profession they can learn or how far they can climb the career ladder. It is conceivable that one day, a robot similar to Atlas could wield weapons or be endowed with strength, endurance, and targeting far beyond any human. It’s not a topic of concern: Elon Musk, who claims Tesla is working on its own humanoid robot, has said it should be designed so that most humans can “run away from it and very can tame it. “
An earlier video by Boston Dynamics, released late last year, showed some of the company’s projects dancing to Contours’ “Do You Love Me.” The adorable clips are more than just a way to combine fun with a mobile aptitude test and are more than a marketing gimmick. This diversion adapts us to the robots, distracting us from what they might one day do. Watching it evoke our human emotions. And that may one day allow these robots, which don’t have the same problem, to improve right under our noses.