The truth behind Boston Dynamics’ viral robot videos

Boston Dynamics builds robots that can open doors, dance and do parkour. The machine age is stepping up a gear, but first the bots need brains

Boston Dynamics robot
Boston Dynamics has cornered the market in YouTube-friendly robot companions, such as Atlas (above)

PADDING through a deserted office in Waltham, Massachusetts, a quadrupedal creature stops in front of a pair of heavy doors. Resting on its haunches for a moment, as though contemplating the obstacle, it turns and seems to summon a friend. The two could almost be Dalmatians. Until, that is, one of them turns what appears to be its head into an articulated arm that grabs the handle, twists it and pulls open the door.

It makes for a weirdly enthralling scene. So enthralling, in fact, that millions of people have watched the YouTube video of these SpotMini robots doing their thing. They are astonishing pieces of engineering, capable of feats of locomotion and dexterity that took evolution millions of years to perfect. But they aren’t quite as capable as they seem. For all their physical prowess, the intelligence of these mechanical creatures is sorely limited. They can walk with an unnervingly animalistic gait and now they can open doors, but what they can’t do is, well, pretty much everything else.

That may all be about to change. Techniques from the best AIs are already being adapted to endow grasping robots with the ability to learn new skills for themselves. The robots in question are still clunky, not to mention stationary. But if this sort of software can be integrated into agile robots like the SpotMini, things will start to get interesting. From doing the household chores to saving you from a burning building, robots that move and learn like us could …