You’re Expecting Too Much Out of Boston Dynamics’ Robots

AMY LOMBARD

At the WIRED25 festival in San Francisco Sunday evening, Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini robot got onstage and did what no other quadruped robot has done before: It danced the running man like it was born to. It was a bit more, well, robotic than a human, but it illustrated just how far Spot has come: Twenty-five years into both WIRED’s and Boston Dynamics’ lives, robots have finally grown sophisticated enough to dance through our world. And a lot more than that, of course.

As impressive as Spot’s new moves are, they came paired with frank talk from Boston Dynamics boss Marc Raibert, who spoke with WIRED editor in chief Nicholas Thompson about the capabilities, aspirations, and futures of both Spot and the humanoid robot Atlas.

You might have seen the video a few days ago of Atlas doing parkour, bounding up a multi-leveled structure with ease. While the performance seemed effortless, it took over 20 attempts. “In our videos we typically show the very best behavior,” Raibert said. “It’s not the average behavior or the typical behavior. And we think of it as an aspirational target for what the robots do.”

This sets up an interesting tension. Whenever Boston Dynamics releases a video of its robots opening doors or doing backflips, the internet has a collective heart attack. (Raibert himself helps edit those videos, by the way.) The machines move with a stunning, perhaps haunting animality, prompting the inevitable articles about the machines taking over the world.

In reality, they’re so far away from doing so that it’s more productive to talk about how climate change will destroy the planet long before then. If it takes a robot 20 tries to get through a door and chase you down the street, it’s going to have a tough time catching up.

“Right now robot technology has advanced a lot,” Raibert said, “but it’s still not all the way where we’d like it to be. And so I think our job is to keep push the boundaries, but also find the best possible uses for the technology as we have it.”

To be clear, these machines are amazing. After Spot danced on stage this evening, it ventured out on the street and drew a mob. People lovethis thing, even when it’s just traipsing back and forth, picking up bags and hats with its snake-like arm.

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