Oct 15, 2018 - Technology

Boston Dynamics’ inscrutable robots

A humanoid robot bounds up a set of blocks
Clip: Boston Dynamics video.

Technologists and reporters started a Twitter fire yesterday to criticize consumer robot companies that post videos depicting super-impressive human-like action, but then fail to explain the limitations of their creations.

What’s going on: Boston Dynamics, a revered but very secretive robotics company, published two videos of their walking bots last week.

The short video of the humanoid robot, Atlas, bounding nimbly up a set of blocks drew the ire of observers tired of seeing flashy demos without technical explanations.

  • It’s rarely clear if the robots in these videos are reacting to their environments with a degree of autonomy or if they’re just following a scripted set of actions that would fail if the scene were even slightly altered.
  • "If you placed Atlas in a random hotel room somewhere, I highly doubt it it would be able to get out," tweeted Hal Hodson, a technology reporter for the Economist. "If you told it to walk across Central Park, it wouldn't have a hope."
  • Hodson continued: "I think public comes away from these vids thinking that robots can do tasks like this now. Fact is they can't. And I don't think, from the way the vids are presented, that they are stupid for thinking that. things like number of runs/video, showing/telling perception would help."

This ignited a pile-on:

  • Jack Clark, a former Bloomberg reporter and now a policy executive with OpenAI, said, "Former journalist here — Boston Dynamics' main press strategy for many years was to publish videos and never give interviews or respond to technical questions, so they never tried to help media add more info/context."
  • James Vincent, an AI reporter for the Verge, responded, "I’ve also approached them multiple times and got nothing."
  • Azeem Azhar, an AI expert at Accenture, tweeted, "Yep. Build the buzz. Hide the meat. Befuddle."
  • Boston Dynamics did not respond to a query about the tweets from Axios.

In the hours following these tweets, Boston Dynamics founder Marc Raibert made an uncharacteristic admission: that the videos aren’t necessarily representative of the robots’ normal performance.

  • “It’s not the average behavior or the typical behavior," he said at a Wired event. And we think of it as an aspirational target for what the robots do.”
  • It took more than 20 tries to get the take for the video, Wired reported.

Boston Dynamics isn’t explicitly claiming its robots can do anything that they can’t. It’s just not saying anything at all and letting experts and the public draw conclusions that may reflect better on the company than the truth.Go deeper: The video that set off the storm

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