Despite a steady diet of movies and television shows depicting robots as extremely capable killing machines bent on taking over the planet in recent decades, real robots have long been a bit… clunky. The incredibly complex mechanics of maintaining one’s balance with a walking stride, for instance, comes easily to human beings that benefit from billions of years of evolution and a lifetime of skill development, but has proved extremely difficult to replicate in machines. So, if we can appreciate how tough it can be to program a robot to walk, just imagine how hard it would be to build a robot that could operate in our modern world full of obstacles to navigate, doors to open, and stairs to climb.
Here at SOFREP, we’ve covered Boston Dynamics’ efforts to build increasingly capable and mobile robots for years, including this monstrosity called “Handle” that even the company’s own CEO called, “nightmare inducing:”
Back in 2017, we told you about Petman, who was built for DARPA by Boston Dynamics in order to test the resilience of gear made to protect troops from nuclear, chemical, and biological attacks. Petman traditionally moved while tethered from above, but aside from the cables, it was pretty difficult to be sure you were looking at a robot under the suit. If you were to see once of these things walking down the street, you might just assume it’s tough to walk with a normal stride in an NBC suit.
Which brings us to the latest out of Boston Dynamics: A new video featuring what has come to be the companies most famous creation: the Atlas robot. Two years ago, SOFREP covered Atlas walking unassisted through difficult and snowy terrain, managing different sorts of obstacles, and even pulling off a back flip here and there. This week, Atlas is back again, this time with an entire gymnastics routine that officially makes Atlas far more mobile, agile, and capable than most humans you know.
It’s a little unnerving to see just how smooth Atlas’ movements have become. Not long ago, robots seemed clumsy and cumbersome, but Atlas is now doing rolls, flips, and jumps that could even put some gymnasts to shame.
Of course, the defense applications for technology like that are innumerable, but also likely a way out. Combat robots and autonomous vehicles are already a common facet of modern warfare, mostly in terms of drone aircraft, but increasingly in the form of unmanned naval vessels and autonomous infantry robots (for better or worse). Russia’s Uran-6 infantry bot reportedly even saw combat in Syria last year, though reports indicate that it was a dismal failure, plagued by so many issues it ultimately proved unusable.
But with programs like Atlas, it seems like robotic soldiers that are built to occupy the spaces we once filled with living, breathing troops could absolutely be a reality in the not-so-distant future. Of course, there remains a lively debate about the ethical implications of such an approach to warfare, but increasingly, it looks like that debate will soon be all that’s left standing between robots like this and the battlefield.