This Boston Dynamics robot is way smarter than its shelf-stacking fail suggests

No one can doubt the extraordinary achievements of robotics specialist Boston Dynamics, its range of highly sophisticated machines wowing many of those who’ve seen them in action. But as Boston Dynamics CEO Marc Raibert said in a recent TED Talk, “Everything doesn’t go exactly the way it’s supposed to.”

Raibert was referring a video clip showing the company’s semi-autonomous Atlas robot taking a tumble after trying to shift some boxes around. It’s a comical sight, and the audience breaks into hearty laughter as Atlas drops the box, stumbles backwards, pulls over a trolley, and crumbles into a heap on the floor. Buster Keaton, eat your heart out.

We know Atlas can do better than that because the clips preceding the fall show it operating with extreme efficiency, if a little over enthusiastically, as it picks up several boxes and deposits them onto a conveyor.

Of course, every tumble that a Boston Dynamics robot endures gives the company more data to work with to improve its technology, and it’s nice that Raibert and his team are happy to share some of those humorous moments where things don’t quite work out, often with amusing results.

Indeed, Atlas was the star of another recent video that showed it tripping over on stage during an appearance at a conference. The audience loved that one, too.

But it’s worth taking a moment to highlight just how impressive Atlas really is (when it stays on its feet). The latest version of the 5-foot 9-inch machine is now skilled enough to function at up to two-thirds the speed of a human during specific tasks — such as moving boxes around inside a warehouse — using both hands, taking steps, and moving its entire body in the process. Just as a human does.

It can walk up stairs, steady itself if pushed, carry stuff, and handle challenging terrain. And if it does fall over, it can get back on its feet in just a few seconds.

Raibert describes Atlas’s remarkable performance as an example of “dynamic stability, mobile manipulation, and mobile perception.”

The Massachusetts-based company is working to enhance the autonomy of its robots so they can deal with a range of situations as they occur. “One of the important things about making autonomous robots is to make them not do just exactly what you say, but make them deal with the uncertainty of what happens in the real world,” Raibert said during his TED Talk.

In another video clip shown by the CEO, we can see a Boston Dynamics engineer tugging on another of its robots — a dog-like machine called Spot — as the contraption attempts to climb a flight of stairs. Despite the engineer’s efforts to disrupt its progress, the robot manages to deal with the situation comfortably, righting itself and continuing its ascent without too much trouble.

“Believe me, getting it to do what it’s supposed to do in those circumstances is a real challenge,” Raibert commented, “But the result is something that’s going to generalize and make robots much more autonomous than they would be otherwise.”

To learn more about Boston Dynamics’ work, hop over to YouTube where you can watch the whole of Raibert’s fascinating TED Talk.

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