Maker of fearsome animal robots is edging into the light


Maker of fearsome animal robots is edging into light

By MATT O’BRIEN

AP Technology Writer

BOSTON

It’s never been clear whether robotics company Boston Dynamics is making killing machines, household helpers or something else entirely.

For nine years, the secretive firm – which got its start with U.S. military funding – has unnerved people around the world with YouTube videos of experimental robots resembling animal predators.

In one, a life-size robotic wildcat sprints across a parking lot at almost 20 miles an hour. In another, a small wheeled rover nicknamed SandFlea abruptly flings itself onto rooftops – and back down again.

A more recent effort features a slender dog-like robot that climbs stairs, holds its own in a tug-of-war with a human and opens a door to let another robot pass.

Boston Dynamics has demonstrated little interest in elaborating on these glimpses into a possible future of fast, strong and sometimes intimidating robots.

For months, the company and its parent, SoftBank, rebuffed numerous requests seeking information about its work. When a reporter visited company headquarters in the Boston suburb of Waltham, Mass., he was turned away.

But after The Associated Press spoke with 10 people who have worked with Boston Dynamics or its 68-year-old founder, Marc Raibert, the CEO agreed to a brief interview in late May. Raibert had just demonstrated the machine that will be the company’s first commercial robot in its 26-year history: the dog-like, door-opening SpotMini, which Boston Dynamics plans to sell to businesses as a camera-equipped security guard next year.

Speculation about Boston Dynamics’ intentions – weapons or servants? – spikes every time it releases a new video. Raibert told the AP that he doesn’t rule out future military applications. But he played down popular fears that his company’s robots could one day be used to kill.

“We think about that, but that’s also true for cars, airplanes, computers, lasers,” Raibert said, clad in his omnipresent Hawaiian shirt. “Every technology you can imagine has multiple ways of using it. If there’s a scary part, it’s just that people are scary. I don’t think the robots by themselves are scary.”

The bigger question of just what Boston Dynamics hopes to accomplish remains murky.

Interviews with eight former Boston Dynamics employees and some of Raibert’s former academic collaborators suggest that that the company has long brushed aside commercial demands, not to mention outsiders’ moral or ethical concerns, in single-minded pursuit of machines that mimic animal locomotion.

Former employees say the company has operated more as a well-funded research lab than a business. Raibert’s vision was kept alive for years through military contracts, especially from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA.

A federal contracting database lists more than $150 million in defense funding to Boston Dynamics since 1994.

Boston Dynamics said only it believes a quarter-century of work on robots will “unlock a very high commercial value.” It did not answer when asked if it ever entertained proposals to weaponize them.

Building robots that can jump, gallop or prowl like animals was a fringe field of engineering when Raibert and his colleagues began studying kangaroo and ostrich videos in their Carnegie Mellon University research lab nearly 40 years ago.

But agile robots aren’t so sci-fi anymore, even if they can still seem that way. In videos, the company’s robots wander through a variety of locales – in and around the company’s single-story headquarters, at a New Hampshire ski lodge and across the secluded meadows and woodlands near Raibert’s home.

In some videos, humans kick the robots or jab them with hockey sticks to test their balance.

The company’s robot videos have not been independently verified.

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