Boston Dynamics' Robots Can Do Parkour. Should We Worry?

And they can probably chase people, too.
Brad Bergan
Boston Dynamics' Atlas robot, making a jump.Boston Dynamics / YouTube

It won't be easy to escape one of Boston Dynamics' Atlas robots, should they pursue you down a narrow alleyway.

A new video (featured below) depicts the human-like robots executing a series of routine parkour obstacles for the first time, leaping across gaps, performing coordinated backflips, and even vaulting beams despite their weight, with more grace than most humans.

However, this kind of performance takes "months" of development, according to a press release from the company, so they probably won't hunt you anytime soon.

Boston Dynamics pushes the limits of motion in robotics

While the robots can adapt to minor changes in position or environments, the robots experienced a 50% failure rate while vaulting, with a small but significant chance of failure with every step, according to an initial Engadget report. Even simple gestures like the fist pump at the end didn't go swimmingly, said the company, which emphasized a need to further refine the movements, since they're limited by the robots' lack of spine and comparatively weak arm joints.

As of writing, Atlas hasn't moved to scaled production, like Spot, the robot dog. The humanoid robot is a kind of kinematic prototype to push the limits of robotics, which is why parkour is an obvious choice for expanding the motion of future helper robots, who may eventually assist humans with a wide spectrum of tasks that call for human or super-human dexterity. But it should go without saying that machines with human-like reflexes should be designed to help, and never to harm humans.

Atlas robots used perception to improvise motion

The kinematic advances displayed in the video are astounding. The Atlas robot is using significant upper body power while vaulting over the bar, executing substantially complex operations while balancing and managing its weight distribution via all four limbs simultaneously. Until now, most videos featuring the Atlas robot involved lower body tricks (except for a few rolls and dance moves). Earlier this year, Boston Dynamics' Vice President of Engineering Aaron Saunders told IEEE that the Atlas development team would emphasize more upper-body advances, and the proof is here. Future enhancements might enable the robot to do something like a pull-up, which will open the door to a much broader range of activities.

However, another major advancement involves Atlas' ability to employ perception on a real-time basis in unprecedented ways. "Atlas' moves are driven by perception now, and they weren't back then," said Atlas' Team Lead Scott Kuindersma of Boston Dynamics, in the press release. "For example, the previous floor routine and dance videos were about capturing our ability to create a variety of dynamic moves and chain them together into a routine that we could run over and over again. In that case, the robot's control system still has to make lots of critical adjustments on the fly to maintain balance and posture goals, but the robot was not sensing and reacting to its environment."

In case you missed it, Kuindersma just announced that this is the first time Atlas ran using its own visual perception for motion, instead of relying on pre-programmed moves that will only work in a static environment. While the robots' moves in the new video are still a little limited, we're also seeing the beginning of machine-based improvisation expressed in our physical three dimensions, instead of in digital formats (like AI art and NFTs). And the company even released a bonus behind-the-scenes video, showing the heavy toll these moves take on the external plates of the machines (from falling a lot). We haven't yet arrived at the age of a robot mechanical underclass, but today brings us a substantial step closer to auditioning humanoid robots for an unprecedented array of difficult and motion-intensive tasks.