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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

Go deeper

Off the Rails

Episode 7: Trump turns on Pence

Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photos: Elijah Nouvelage, Alex Wong/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. Axios takes you inside the collapse of a president with a special series.

Episode 7: Trump turns on Pence. Trump believes the vice president can solve all his problems by simply refusing to certify the Electoral College results. It's a simple test of loyalty: Trump or the U.S. Constitution.

"The end is coming, Donald."

The male voice in the TV ad boomed through the White House residence during "Fox & Friends" commercial breaks. Over and over and over. "The end is coming, Donald. ... On Jan. 6, Mike Pence will put the nail in your political coffin."

Big Tech's post-riot reckoning

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

The Capitol insurrection means the anti-tech talk in Washington is more likely to lead to action, since it's ever clearer that the attack was planned, at least in part, on social media.

Why it matters: The big platforms may have hoped they'd move to D.C.'s back burner, with the Hill focused on the Biden agenda and the pandemic out of control. But now, there'll be no escaping harsh scrutiny.

35 mins ago - Technology

Why domestic terrorists are so hard to police online

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Domestic terrorism has proven to be more difficult for Big Tech companies to police online than foreign terrorism.

The big picture: That's largely because the politics are harder. There's more unity around the need to go after foreign extremists than domestic ones — and less danger of overreaching and provoking a backlash.