This overview of the changes in capabilities of the Atlas humanoid robot from Boston Dynamics is both fascinating and bit unsettling. In 5 years Atlas has gone from struggling to stand on one leg, to walking on uneven surfaces, to running on uneven surfaces, to doing backflips and now, in October 2018, to bounding up a staggered series of wooden platforms. It’s worth noting that very few human beings would be able to accomplish this last feat.

According to Boston Dynamics, Atlas’ software uses all parts of the body to generate the necessary force to propel the robot up the platforms. The most impressive part of the last demo is the fact that “...Atlas uses computer vision and visible markers on the platforms to decide when and how to shift it weight. So, it’s not just executing a program, it’s making it up as it goes along.” In other words, Atlas is making real-time decisions about how to move, based on what it sees in front of it. No-one has told it what to do.

The profound implication of this is that these things are only ever going to get better, and the rate of change is going to increase. Now that they’ve solved “balance”, “walking”, “running”, and “jumping”, what will Boston Dynamics turn to next? Once Atlas has achieved parity with human performance it’s only a matter of time before it’s superhuman in every physical ability we care about.

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