In a vast warehouse-style room, two humanoid robots are taking on an obstacle course. Their barrel-shaped torsos, stuffed with processors and batteries, make it look as if they’ve been going to the gym a lot but have neglected leg day. They run and jump, traipsing on and off blocks and angled steps not unlike those in the qualifying round of the obstacle-course show “American Ninja Warrior.” One runs along a beam and then, later, vaults over it. For the finale, they position themselves on opposite corners of a table and do two synchronized back flips. Feet firmly on the ground, they celebrate: One brushes off its shoulders, the other raises its arms in triumph. Neither, obviously, has broken a sweat.
This is a parkour showcase by the robotics company Boston Dynamics, demonstrating the capabilities of its Atlas model. Like a gymnastics routine, the sequence of moves here is entirely choreographed, programmed by a team of engineers. The smoothness of the movements makes it look as if the robots are 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 C.G.I. cartoon characters fooling our brains by moving 24 frames per second, these robots are tumbling through physical reality.
The Atlas was built 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 simply our narcissism that made the shape so obvious?) The software contains only templates of the physical actions the model can perform; the robot itself must calculate how much force to exert through each of its 28 hydraulic joints to make a given jump. Watching it work wows me. It’s true that one robot’s hips swivel unnaturally as it works to keep its feet beneath its center of gravity on that beam, but otherwise the routine feels superhuman. I personally could do the initial jumps between angled platforms, but I have never been able to execute 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 confront the robots’ physical prowess in person. Each is only a few inches shorter than I, but they weigh about a third more. They can run at a decent clip, slightly slower than 5.6 m.p.h. As a runner, I know I could outpace one easily, at least for its current battery life. But I wonder if I would be able to overpower it. In the minute or so it takes to watch the video, my brain has already switched from marveling at the cool robot to wondering: Could this thing hunt me for sport?
Boston Dynamics has uploaded videos like this for more than a decade, cataloging the progress of its creations as they grow more lifelike, and more unsettling. One of its 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 maintains that its creations are research projects, it does sell Spot and has leased one to the N.Y.P.D. It could have been used to accomplish tasks too risky for a living being, such as delivering food in a hostage situation or checking areas with high amounts of radiation. But its appearance accompanying police officers during an arrest in public housing sparked enough public backlash for its trial to be prematurely terminated. People found the robodog both wasteful and chilling, especially in the possession of the institution most likely to use force against them. It surely didn’t help that the robodog looked quite similar to the horrific killer machines in an episode of the show “Black Mirror” called “Metalhead”
We can ask the same question of the Atlas: What is it for? The video only shows us what it can do. For now, the robots don’t want anything; apart from not falling over, they await a reason for being. The company says the goal is to create robots that can perform mundane tasks in all sorts of terrain, but the video contains no such tasks; we see only feats of agility, not the routine functions these robots would be back-flipping toward. Through this gap enter the tendrils of sinister speculation.
You can imagine what it might be like to confront the robots’ physical prowess in person.
There is a companion video that goes with the original — one that feels as if it were designed to allay any fears its counterpart may have provoked. It is a behind-the-scenes video, in which engineers explain the project. The focus shifts from the adept robots to the reassuringly human people who built them. There are also bloopers. We see a robot falling on the last step of a banked turn; another face-plants as it overbalances and slips on nothing. There is a shot of one robot landing the final back flip while the other lands on its head, limbs akimbo, and then rolls over into the fetal position. We see robots having their hardware repaired. An engineer reconnects wires. A robot is suspended in the air while it leaks liquid. Another lies face down, its arms around its head, as a technician tends to its outstretched leg. As one is reanimated after surgery, it stretches its limbs out as if waking from a restful slumber.
It is comforting to see the robots’ fallibility — they still need us! — but remarkably, this only makes them seem more humanlike. On watching the original parkour video again, I notice a third robot in the background, inert, laying in a kind of yoga pose. Is it taking a break? Has it been relegated to the sidelines because of poor performance? Has it been shunned by its robot colleagues?
Of course these robots have not been trained in any such social context; their artificial intelligence only serves them in staying upright as they move from point to point. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to avoid the thought that they could somehow, someday, go rogue. We do not know what profession they might go into or how far up the career ladder they might climb. It is conceivable that a robot similar to Atlas could one day use weapons or be given strength, stamina and aim beyond any human’s. This isn’t an unusual topic of concern: Elon Musk, who claims Tesla is working on its own humanoid robot, has said that it should be designed such that most humans would be able to “run away from it and most likely overpower it.”
An earlier video from Boston Dynamics, released at the end of last year, shows some of the company’s projects dancing to the Contours’ “Do You Love Me.” Adorable clips are more than just a way to combine fun with mobility-competency testing and more than a marketing gimmick. This entertainment acclimates us to the robots, distracting us from what they could one day do. Watching it invokes our human emotions. And that may someday let these robots, which don’t have the same problem, improve right under our noses.