Atlas, forefather of humanoid robots, gives way to next generation
Apr 29, 2024

Atlas, forefather of humanoid robots, gives way to next generation

Boston Dynamics is retiring the original Atlas at the age of 11. TechCrunch’s Brian Heater discusses the pioneering bot's legacy and what the company has in mind for its offspring.

Robotics company Boston Dynamics announced this month that it has retired its humanoid robot, known as Atlas. The 6-foot, 2,330-pound machine was considered a quantum leap in robotics and gained fame for its parkour stunts and awkward dance moves.

Debuting in 2013, Atlas was the product of a partnership with the Defense Department. It relied on hydraulic power, using pressurized fluid to generate movement, and could perform tasks that can be challenging for humans, like lifting heavy boxes.

As the older Atlas lives out its golden years, Boston Dynamics has introduced its successor — a smaller version, with the same name, that runs on electric power.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with Brian Heater, hardware editor at TechCrunch, for a look back at the original Atlas and his take on how companies, and households, might make use of humanoids.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Brian Heater: It’s big and hulking, it’s very top heavy. It’s hydraulic powered, as all of the early Boston Dynamics robots are, which means, among other things, that it’s extremely loud. You’re in a room with it, it’s, like, almost deafening. You hear the gases passing as it’s moving.

Lily Jamali: Well, what was the response to it when it first came out in 2013?

Heater: The response isn’t dissimilar from what it is now. And people were incredibly and rightfully impressed by the robot because for a lot of people it felt like a quantum leap over the technology that was out there. There was no bipedal robot that was capable of doing what it could do and it was very versatile. And you’ve got to be very versatile because it was a research robot. And you had all these teams, [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and Carnegie Mellon and all these very smart researchers using them for these [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] challenges. It was leagues ahead of everybody else. And in a lot of ways, it feels like just about everyone else is continuing to still play catch-up with that technology.

Jamali: Well, so there’s this new Atlas now, which is different. It’s all electric. It’s very fluid, the way that this thing moves, it’s almost terrifying. I’ve seen it described as a sleek, swiveling nightmare that almost seems to defy physics. What’s a sentence you would use to describe what it’s like, this new one?

Heater: So the new one is considerably slimmer than the older version. It’s much quieter, the movements are incredibly fluid. Because of the compact size, it’s really capable of doing a lot more in a far more confined environment. And I think because of that, it’s going to be much more capable of working alongside people. That’s the biggest concern with a lot of these robots. [They] traditionally had been very big and very heavy and therefore have been very prone to [injuring] people. This one is much smaller and capable of working alongside them. And it’s something as simple as a robot that looks like a human and perhaps has a face, it’s easier for us to understand its intentions.

Jamali: So what do we know about why Boston Dynamics is updating the robot?

Heater: Yeah. The simple answer is that the old robot just wasn’t built for those things, it was built for research purposes. The technology is still extremely impressive, but in a lot of ways it’s a decade out of date. It’s too large, it’s too loud, it probably needs to be tethered for the battery to operate. I believe it’s a lithium-ion battery, so it’s the same battery that you have on your phone or your electric car, so it could just go in and charge. And just the fact that it’s smaller, again, is a very key piece here in terms of actually being able to operate in the workplace and operate alongside people.

Jamali: There’s obviously plenty of companies in this space working on bipedal — meaning walks on two feet — humanoid robots. So there’s Tesla, Agility Robotics, Figure, they all have robots in the works as well. Can you give me a brief temperature check on the industry?

Heater: So there’s a lot of interest and there’s a lot of money changing hands right now. Investors are incredibly interested in this space. People [who own] factories and warehouses are incredibly interested in deploying these systems. And everybody’s promising this idea of generalized intelligence. Most people I talked to tell me that generalized intelligence is probably like five, maybe 10, years off, so we’re talking about a much longer timeline than I think a lot of people are anticipating right now. I’ve been in this industry for a long time, and I think we’re in the middle of this hype wave right now. There’s going to be a lot of excitement and it’s going to cool down a bit. And that’s going to be the period of time when these things are actually deployed and the testing happens.

Jamali: Wait a minute. Did you say hype in tech? I’m sorry, I can’t, I can’t.

Heater: It’s fun. It’s fun, right? It’s nice to have one of the categories that I cover being superhyped after watching, you know, like, crypto and AI. Obviously, there’s a lot of overlap between the two. The hype is exciting. It’s great that the world is, like, sitting up and seeing this stuff and seeing rightfully how incredibly impressive it is. But I used to say that my kind of loose definition of a robot was a really complex and impressive machine used to perform menial and boring tasks. And that’s kind of what this is. You’re gonna be really blown away by the technology the first time you see it, and then if these things work out as planned, then they’re going to be just another kind of boring thing hanging around the factory. And that means that everything’s working accordingly.

Jamali: Well, I think the thing we’re all wondering is, you know, not in the factory, I’m not so interested in that. When do I get to see it at my house? When are we going to get a real-life Rosie the Robot from “The Jetsons” or C-3PO? Does this new Atlas put us on that track?

Heater: Yes and no. You know, people often ask me when they’re gonna have a robot in their house, and my cheeky but very serious question back to them is, “Do you have a Roomba or robot vacuum? And if you do, you’ve got a robot in your home.” Those have been around for, I think the first Roomba came out 20-plus years ago, and we haven’t really seen a follow-up. It’s a really difficult space to operate in for a number of reasons. One [is] very unstructured environments. Even if you keep your house pretty clean, you move things around, sometimes you’ll throw something on the ground. Houses aren’t really very uniform from one to the other. And then the other one is, as I mentioned earlier, is price, like the most advanced Roomba right now is something in the neighborhood of, like, $1,500. Like even that is like way more expensive than most people want to pay in the home. So the likeliest scenario is we’re not going to be seeing these robots in the home. But in the meantime, we’re going to see a lot of really cool and interesting technology and probably robots in the home that are in some ways a product of the research that went into these systems.

More on this

When Boston Dynamics announced Atlas would be retiring, the company published a blooper reel of the bot’s failed stunts through the years, including falls down stairs, an attempt to board an elevator and a particularly nasty tumble from a balance beam, which ends with Atlas clutching its knees in the fetal position. I’d probably do the same in that scenario.

The robotics company also posted a video of its new electric bot, the so-called swiveling nightmare. It’s hard to describe the Terminator-like ways the robot contorts its body. You should see it for yourself.

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