Technology

7 things we learned about Boston Dynamics from ‘60 Minutes’

"If Willy Wonka made robots, his workshop might look something like this."

Spot, the "dog-inspired" Boston Dynamic robot, gives a demonstration in front of Raibert. AP Photo/Josh Reynolds

“If Willy Wonka made robots, his workshop might look something like this,” Anderson Cooper said while touring Boston Dynamics’ Waltham workshop.

Cooper was visiting for a “60 Minutes” segment which gave a behind-the-scenes look at the company and their life-like robots.

The segment titled “Boston Dynamics: Inside the workshop where robots of the future are being built” initially aired in March – a few weeks after Anderson’s visit – and was rebroadcast last night. Boston Dynamics is also featured on another online segment uploaded today, regarding their efforts to help create autonomous Mars rovers.

Cooper talked to Boston Dynamics’ founder, Mark Raibert, and CEO, Robert Playter, as well as other technicians and employees.

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Here is what we learned about the local robotics company from the episode:

1. “60 Minutes” has tried to get into the Boston Dynamics workshop for years

Anderson Cooper began the special talking about how “60 Minutes” worked “behind closed doors” in the past and only released occasional YouTube videos. Cooper said the television program unsuccessfully tried to visit the company’s workshop for years.

“We’d been trying without any luck to get into Boston Dynamics’ workshop for years, and in March, they finally agreed to let us in,” Cooper said. “After working out strict COVID protocols we went to Massachusetts to see how they make robots do the unimaginable.”

2. Atlas, the most human looking robot, is steered using an Xbox controller

Atlas may be one of Boston Dynamic’s most complex robots: “60 Minutes” calls it the “most human looking robot” and said it moves like an “automated acrobat.”

Despite advanced technology – including three onboard computers and a gyroscope – the human-sized robot is controlled with a common video game remote.

In one shot, technician Bryan Hollingsworth can be seen using an Xbox controller with the distinctive green x logo in the middle.

“The robot is doing all its own balance, all its own control,” Raibert said. “Bryan’s just steering it, telling it what speed and direction.”

3. Boston Dynamics tests their robots by pushing them with a hockey stick.

Technicians need to test the balance of their robots, and sometimes that includes forcefully pushing their robots with the end of a hockey stick.

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“Kevin Blankespoor is one of the lead engineers here, but at times, he prefers a very low-tech approach to testing robots,” said Cooper while playing a segment of Blankespoor physically jabbing the robot and hitting a box out of his hand.

“We think of that as just another way to push them out of the comfort zone,” Blankespoor said.

4. The viral dancing robot video took at least six months to brainstorm and 18 months to create

“We spent at least six months, maybe eight, just preparing for what we were gonna do,” Raibert said. “And then we started to get the technical teams working on the behavior.”

The result? An almost 3-minute video of all their robots dancing to “Do You Love Me” by the Contours. The robots move to the beat like humans and even do the popular 1960’s ‘mashed potatoes’ dance.

Cooper noted how the dancing project – while playful and amusing – cost a lot of money and took 18 months of company time.

“This process of doing new things with the robots lets you generate new tools, new approaches, new understanding of the problem that takes you forward,” Raibert said. “But, man, isn’t it just fun?”

5. Atlas and Spot have a new sibling — ‘Stretch’

After introducing two of the well-known Boston Dynamic robots, Atlas and Spot (the dog-like robot that is sold and used for a variety of tasks), “60 Minutes” showed off Boston Dynamics’ newest robot – Stretch. The tall robot, which looks like a seven-foot arm on a moving box, is designed to help warehouses autonomously and will be on sale next year.

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“You can drive it around with a joystick and at times, that’s the easiest way to get it set up,” Blankespoor said while moving Stretch. “But once it’s ready to go in a truck and unload it, you hit go and from there on it’s autonomous and it’ll keep finding boxes and moving ’em until it’s all the way through.”

6. The founder wants to make a car with legs

During the last minute of the segment, Cooper talks to Raibert about his dream project.

“A car with an active suspension – essentially legs – like a roller skating robot. And a robot like that could go anywhere on earth,” Raibert said. “That’s one thing that maybe we’ll do at some point. But really, the sky’s the limit.”

Throughout the episode, Raibert expressed his fascination with creating robots with legs like animals and humans because they allow versatile mobility over uneven surfaces, a design that can be seen in both Atlas and Spot.

7. The robots are far from functioning independently, despite many people’s fear

Many Twitter users have reacted in both amazement and fear over the human-like qualities of the robots’ movements. Nevertheless, Boston Dynamics said these people are attributing more intelligence to the robots than they should.

“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,” Playter said. “They don’t make up their own minds about what their tasks are. They operate within a narrow bound of their programming.”

“If you told it to travel in a circle in the room it can go through the sequence of steps,” Raibert said. “But if you ask it to go find me a soda, it’s not doing anything like that.”

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“They haven’t seen machines move like this before,” Playter said. “And so they want to project intelligence and emotion onto that in ways that are fiction.”

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