A Small Shove for a Robot, a Giant Leap for Robotkind

In their new footage of Atlas, Boston Dynamics is doing more than just annoying a robot: They're demonstrating mastery of some of the most difficult issues in robotics.

Maintaining balance isn't always easy for human bipeds. (Jennifer Lawrence, if you happen to read this, we feel you.) That's despite our having an intricate, built-in system to help us out. Pressure-sensitive nerves in our skin, muscles and joints tell us about the firmness and slope of the ground. In our inner ears, canals full of fluid and tiny hairs give us detailed nuances about our 3-D spatial orientation and motion. Our eyes absorb incredible amounts of data about the shape and distance of objects around us.

Programming those sensors into two-legged machinery and then getting a computer to both process the data and extrapolate appropriate motion cues in real time are gargantuan feats. Other designs are much more stable: four legs, wheels and treads all beat bipeds in terms of robot practicality.

So why try? Is Boston Dynamics just showing off? Well, maybe a little. But most of our world is built on the assumption that the beings interacting with it will have the size, shape and capacity of the average person. We don't even make it easy for our fellow humans to get around if their bodies or abilities fall outside of a narrow norm, and we definitely didn't take robots' needs into consideration when building our spaces.

For any small, specialized ‘bot you might buy in the future, this probably won't matter too much. Its tasks will be routine. But, as the video above discusses, it becomes a huge problem if we're going to pursue one of the biggest goals in robotics: sending robots into disaster relief scenarios. There are so many situations, such as the Fukushima crisis, that human responders can't survive — and shouldn't have to be asked to. After all, we live in an incredible future in which it's a guy's real job to mess with a robot. It makes you feel like anything is possible, given enough elbow grease and servo couplers.