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Why Boston Dynamics' backflipping borg shouldn't scare you

Ruse of the Machines

It's alive, it's terrifying, and it does perfect backflips! Boston Dynamics' gymnastic research robot Atlas has caused a minor panic on social media. With skills like this, surely humans are doomed?

Here it is.

Youtube Video

And here's Boston's Mini Spot.

Youtube Video

But hold on. What could this be? It's one of Boston's robots set a slightly more difficult, real-world challenge:

And here's one of their party performers attempting to negotiate the extremely difficult challenge of walking very slowly in a straight line.

Youtube Video

[Skip to 4.08]

Boston's robots are showpieces of anthropomorphism, embedded with complexity that is largely superfluous. Let's do a thought experiment for a moment. Given the job of moving a package of a certain weight over these obstacles, how would you design a machine to do it?

You'd probably settle on a spring for propulsion and some counterweights. You wouldn't need the fancy joints. You certainly wouldn't need the backflip. You wouldn't need the cute anthropomorphic wobble. In fact, you could actually do it for a fraction of the cost and the complexity. So what's the point? The anthropomorphism actually is the point. It's why Boston's work may be a boon for prosthetics but has little do with the future of robotics, which have to learn about and meet challenges.

For all the talk of a New Machine Age™ or the Fourth Industrial Revolution™, someone seems to have forgotten to bring the machines.

We're not the only people to notice a gap between hype and reality. The Wall Street Journal has noticed too. In its article "How to Survive a Robot Apocalypse: Just Close the Door", it notes the many ways robots can be thwarted. More examples are posted on Reddit's Shitty Robots.

Some become quite public.

So 30 years after Moravec's Paradox, computers still excel at adult-level games, and struggle with real-world situations. Moravec rules, OK? ®

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