What Exactly Is Boston Dynamics Doing?

Posted: Feb 26 2019, 8:39am CST | by , in Technology News

What Exactly Is Boston Dynamics Doing?
Image: Wired

You've seen the viral video of their dancing robot dog, but they are so much more than that. Their rapid improvements in technology could mean that they have a major impact on the world in years to come.

In 2019, lots of companies can defensibly make the statement "we make robots." You probably know robots have played an important role in manufacturing — for example, on the production lines of modern automakers — for quite some time now. Boston Dynamics is a name we associate with a different kind of robot, though.

The robots Boston Dynamics makes are more like the androids we see in Hollywood movies or Honda's interactive Asimo than they are to a plasma-cutting robotic arm that spends its entire existence carrying out predefined instructions. BD's robots look like living beings, and in 2019, they're beginning to think like them too.

The Story of Boston Dynamics

Boston Dynamics' robots have been in the media spotlight before. The company's four-legged creations for DARPA have been the topic of much interest, even though the pack-rat BigDog project was ultimately shelved by the U.S. military because the robot was too noisy. Currently under ownership by SoftBank, BD's previous owner, Google, drew attention to its robotic car efforts when it acquired the robotics manufacturer in 2013.

Originally founded in 1992, Boston Dynamics is considered one of the pre-eminent companies in the robotics field to this day. In addition to BigDog, BD has produced the world's fastest-legged robot, the quadrupedal Cheetah, and the ATLAS series of 6-foot-tall humanoid robots. This year, significant advances in artificial intelligence are delivering major steps forward for bipedal designs like ATLAS.

The Parkour Video

Many of the bipedal robots we've seen come and go have been able to walk, and some have even climbed stairs. In most cases, these robots were under human control or were following a preplanned route. Some more recent iterations have been capable of interpreting terrain and moving forward but were clunky and ungainly — the famous "Asimo falls down stairs" incident comes to mind. Stairs are tough.

Boston Dynamics' recent developments in the ATLAS program branch away from such limited mobility and focus on these robots moving at speed and adapting to changing terrain. Neil Jacobstein, chair of the Artificial Intelligence and Robot Track at Singularity University, calls these advances "one of the most visible improvements in AI (in 2018)."

The company released a video of this new AI in action in which an ATLAS robot can be seen running and leaping over a log placed in its way. The robot then continues and encounters a set of stepped platforms that alternate from left to right. Without missing a beat, it leaps on one leg up the three platforms like a parkour athlete and continues down the elevated pathway at the top of the steps.

Why It Matters

What we're seeing here is the beginning of functionality in these robots that is real-world applicable. Get ready to start seeing Skynet references on your favorite tech websites, because the way this robot moves is frighteningly humanlike. You could imagine such a machine carrying out military missions and other high-risk maneuvers in the future.

Of course, there are only a handful of these robots at the moment, and they probably cost so much to develop that the idea of a military force comprised of these is still a few years off. Then again, when you consider that 30 years ago these sorts of things were relegated to science fiction, it's pretty mind-blowing to find this technology is still improving. As it does, it's getting cheaper to make.

Will we see the robot force in our lifetime? Quite possibly. Most likely, we'll get to watch the first forays of these impressive machines into real-world applications. It might be a little messy, but this is a critical time in human history. Keep your eyes on Boston Dynamics.

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The Author

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/56" rel="author">Scott Huntington</a>
Scott Huntington is a writer and journalist from Harrisburg PA who covered movies, tech, cars, and more. Check out his blog Off The Throttle or follow him on Twitter @SMHuntington.




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