In a large warehouse-like room, two humanoid robots embark on an obstacle course. Their barrel-shaped torsos, stuffed with processors and batteries, make it look like they go to the gym a lot but neglected the leg day. They run and jump, up and down boulders and inclined steps much like the qualifying round of the American Ninja Warrior Obstacle Course Show. We run along a beam and then, later, we fly over it. For the final, they position themselves at opposite corners of a table and perform two synchronized back flips. With their feet on the ground, they celebrate: one brushes his shoulders, the other raises his arms in triumph. Neither, of course, sweated.
This is a parkour showcase from robotics company Boston Dynamics, demonstrating the capabilities of its Atlas model. Like a gymnastic routine, the sequence of movements is here entirely choreographed, programmed by a team of engineers. The fluidity of movement makes the robots seem like digital animations, like something out of a movie: what we are watching is a simulation of human movement, modeled and designed on computers. It’s just that instead of CGI cartoon characters fooling our brains into moving 24 frames per second, these robots tumble through physical reality.
The Atlas was designed 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 apex predator or just our narcissism that made the form so obvious?) The software only contains models of the physical actions the model can perform; the robot itself must calculate the force to be exerted on each of its 28 hydraulic joints to perform a given jump. Seeing it work impresses me. It’s true that a robot’s hips rotate abnormally as it struggles to keep its feet below its center of gravity on this beam, but otherwise the routine seems superhuman. Personally, I could do the initial jumps between inclined platforms, but I was never able to perform a back flip, held back by the human fear of landing on my neck.
Watching the video, you can imagine what it might be like to face the physical prowess of the robots in person. Each is only a few inches shorter than me, but they weigh about a third more. They can run at a decent speed, slightly slower than 5.6 mph. As a runner, I know I could easily overtake one, at least for its current battery life. But I wonder if I would be able to master it. Within a minute or so of watching the video, my brain has already gone from amazement at the cool robot to asking, could this thing be chasing me for sports?
Boston Dynamics has has uploaded videos like this for over a decade, cataloging the advancement of his designs as they become more realistic and disturbing. One of his models is a robotic dog called Spot, with four legs and, sometimes, a “neck” topped with a camera “head” – an android’s best friend.
Although the company claims its designs are research projects, it sells Spot and leased one from the NYPD. amounts of radiation. But its accompanying appearance police officers during an arrest in social housing generated enough public backlash for his trial to end prematurely. People found robodog to be both unnecessary and frightening, especially in possession of the institution most likely to use force against them. Surely it didn’t help that the robodog looks enough like the horrible killing machines in one episode of the series. “Black Mirror” called “Metalhead” – probably because series creator Charlie Brooker, who wrote the episode, took inspiration from previous Boston Dynamics videos.
We can ask ourselves the same question of the Atlas: what is it for? The video only shows us what it can to do. For now, the robots don’t want anything; apart from not falling, they are waiting for a reason to exist. The company says the goal is to create robots that can perform mundane tasks on all kinds of terrain, but the video does not contain any of these tasks; we only see feats of agility, not the routine functions that these robots would turn to. Through this breach penetrate the tendrils of sinister speculation.
You can imagine what it might be like to face the physical prowess of robots in person.
There is a accompanying video that goes with the original – one that makes it look like it was designed to allay any fears its counterpart may have aroused. This is a behind-the-scenes video, in which the engineers explain the project. The focus shifts from adept robots to the reassuring people who built them. There are also blunders. We see a robot fall on the last step of a raised bend; another face-plant because it overbalances and does not slide on anything. There is a shot of one robot performing the last backward jump as the other lands on its head, limbs on hips, then rolls over into a fetal position. We see robots having their equipment repaired. An engineer reconnects the wires. A robot hangs in the air as it leaks liquid. Another is lying on his stomach, his arms around his head, while a technician tends to his outstretched leg. As one is resuscitated after surgery, it stretches its limbs as if waking up from a restful sleep.
It’s heartwarming to see the fallibility of robots – they still need us! – but remarkably, that only makes them more human. Watching the original parkour video again, I notice a third robot in the background, inert, lying in a sort of yoga pose. Does it take a break? Has it been relegated to the background due to poor performance? Has he been shunned by his fellow robots?
Of course, these robots were not trained in such a social context; their artificial intelligence only serves them to stay upright when they move from one point to another. Nonetheless, it’s impossible to avoid the idea that they might one day or another go rogue. We don’t know what profession they might go to or how far they might climb the career ladder. It is conceivable that a robot similar to Atlas could one day use weapons or receive strength, stamina and aim beyond that of any human. This is not an unusual cause for concern: Elon Musk, who claims Tesla is working on his own humanoid robot, said it should be designed in such a way that most humans can “run away from it and most likely get away from it.” to master. “
A previous video from Boston Dynamics, posted late last year, shows some of the company’s plans dancing to “Do You Love Me” by Contours. Adorable clips are more than just a way to combine fun with mobility skill testing and more than a marketing gimmick. This entertainment acclimates us to robots, distracting us from what they might one day do. Watching it invokes our human emotions. And that may one day allow these robots, which do not have the same problem, to improve under our noses.
Could Boston Dynamics robots beat me in a fight?
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