It’s the day everyone feared: Boston Dynamics’ robots have moved on from fun dance parties and have started doing actual jobs. In their latest video, the Atlas robot is shown hopping around a "construction site" (a set built at Boston Dynamics’ facility) doing manual labor, throwing tool bags around, and building a little pathway for itself to cross onto the scaffolding.
It looks seriously impressive and remarkably human, and allows a short glimpse into what the future of work could look like.
“We’re layering on new capabilities,” said Ben Stephens, Atlas controls lead, in a statement.
“Parkour and dancing were interesting examples of pretty extreme locomotion, and now we’re trying to build upon that research to also do meaningful manipulation. It’s important to us that the robot can perform these tasks with a certain amount of human speed. People are very good at these tasks, so that has required some pretty big upgrades to the control software.”
Stephens is right, of course – if companies are to invest in robotics to speed up workflow, there is no point in having a humanoid robot that walks at half the speed of a human and falls over when it sees something slightly unfamiliar.
Boston Dynamics have shown themselves to be at the forefront of robotics in this area, demonstrating self-righting capabilities and even the ability to open doors. However, previous demonstrations of both Spot and Atlas have been pre-programmed moves that don’t require awareness of their surroundings, whereas creating a robot that is both aware and reactive to its environment is significantly trickier.
As the company explains, Atlas needs to remain balanced in the face of obstacles of different sizes and weights, gripping and pushing them in ways that would usually require a human.
“We’re using all of the strength available in almost every single joint on the robot,” Robin Deits, a software engineer for Atlas, says in a statement.
“That trick is right at the limit of what the robot can do.”
If you’re a construction worker, there isn’t too much in the immediate future to worry about – Atlas is purely a research platform and is not commercially available. It does, however, mark one step closer to humanoid robots mimicking human roles, which might shake more than just one industry.