Robotics

Rare access inside Boston Dynamics’ robotics workshop

Robots have been moving like humans on screen since cinema began, their behavior becoming even more fluid over the last decades thanks to computer animation. But in some ways, fantasy has become reality at Boston Dynamics, a cutting-edge company where Anderson Cooper finds robots that walk with a human gait, run gracefully, do back flips and can spin themselves around in midair. Cooper and 60 Minutes cameras get a rare look inside the innovative robotics firms to see technology that augurs a day when robots might physically be able to do almost anything humans can. Cooper’s story will be broadcast on 60 Minutes Sunday, March 28, at 7 p.m. ET/PT on CBS. 

“Some people look at me and say, ‘Oh, Raibert, you’ve been stuck on this problem for 40 years,'” says Marc Raibert, Boston Dynamic’s founder and Chairman who’s spent most of his career trying to make more capable robots. “Animals are amazingly good, and people, at what they do. You know, we’re so agile. We’re so versatile. Right?” he asks Cooper.  “We really haven’t achieved what humans can do yet. But… I think we can.” 

One of the keys to making robots move more like humans and go wherever people and animals can is giving the machines legs, says Raibert. “Wheels and tracks are great if you have a prepared surface like a road or even a dirt road. But people and animals can go anywhere on earth using their legs. And, so, that, you know, that was the inspiration.” 

Raibert experimented with early robotic designs when he was a pioneering professor of robotics and computer science at Carnegie Mellon in the 1980’s. He founded Boston Dynamics in 1992 and has been obsessed with making robots that can move like humans and animals for 40 years.  He’s been working with Robert Playter, the company CEO, for decades to perfect the machines’ movements. 

Though Boston Dynamics is able to make some robots move in incredible ways, don’t expect renegade robots of the kind we’ve all seen in movies anytime soon, because they simply don’t have that kind of intelligence, says Playter. “The rogue robot story is a powerful story. And it’s been told for 100 years. But it’s fiction.  Robots don’t have agency. They don’t make up their own minds about what their tasks are. They operate within a narrow bound of their programming” he tells Cooper.

Some do worry robots will displace humans as more and more of them enter the workforce.  They are already prevalent in manufacturing and on factory floors. But Playter envisions a different future in which robots help more than they hurt. “This generation of robots is going to be different… They’re going to work next to us,” he says. ”We envision a job– we like to call the robot wrangler. He’ll launch and manage five to 10 robots at a time and…keep them all working.”

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Though Boston Dynamics is able to make some robots move in incredible ways, don’t expect renegade robots of the kind we’ve all seen in movies anytime soon, because they simply don’t have that kind of intelligence, says Playter. “The rogue robot story is a powerful story. And it’s been told for 100 years. But it’s fiction.  Robots don’t have agency. They don’t make up their own minds about what their tasks are. They operate within a narrow bound of their programming” he tells Cooper.

Source: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/boston-dynamics-robots-60-minutes-2021-03-25/

Donovan Larsen

Donovan is a columnist and associate editor at the Dark News. He has written on everything from the politics to diversity issues in the workplace.

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