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Boston Dynamics: Lord Of The Robots Has A New Target To Conquer

On two or four legs, the robots from this MIT spin-off are among the most advanced in the world. And while their videos have conquered YouTube, their new playground is less spectacular, but just as strategic: logistics warehouses.

The yellow, quadruped Boston Dynamics's Spot Mini robot waits backstage

Boston Dynamics's Spot Mini Robot, prior to going on stage during the final day of Web Summit 2019.

Benoît Georges

WALTHAM — The latest viral Boston Dynamics YouTube video, posted in mid-January, already boasts over 6 million views. In a setting reminiscent of a construction site, the humanoid robot Atlas places a plank of wood on a scaffold, grabs a bag filled with tools, climbs four steps, runs up the plank, throws the bag to a human, jumps to its feet and then completes its journey with a spectacular somersault.

The scene is worthy of a science-fiction film — but it was produced without any special effects, by the Boston Dynamics robotics company.

Founded in 1992 by MIT professor Marc Raibert, the company, based in the Boston suburb of Waltham, has been developing cutting-edge bipedal and quadrupedal robots for three decades. They are often under contract to DARPA, the U.S. military's advanced project research agency. Internet users were introduced to Boston Dynamics in 2008, with a video showcasing BigDog, an imposing quadruped robot designed to carry American infantry soldiers' equipment on all kinds of terrain — forest, snow, ice or rubble.

Boston Dynamics then became part of Google, at a time when the search engine's founders were looking to invent the robots of the future, and then part of Masayoshi Son's Japanese group SoftBank, which was pursuing the same dream. Since 2021, its majority shareholder has been the Korean Hyundai group, and while videos of its robots still set YouTube alight, its new mission is far less spectacular: to automate logistics warehouses.

Beating world records

"In 30 years, we've reinvented ourselves three times," sums up Robert Playter, CEO of Boston Dynamics since Nov. 2019. An employee since the company's founding, he did his doctoral thesis on Marc Raibert's team at MIT, and applied his experience as a gymnastics champion to 3D Biped, an unusual robot capable of hopping and performing a somersault.

"For the first 10 years, we mainly made simulation tools. In the second decade, we moved into robotics research, designing all kinds of machines. The final shift was from research to manufacturing," he explains.

At Boston Dynamics headquarters, a small museum shows the evolution of these robots, from the first bipeds dating back to the 1990s to the many prototypes funded by DARPA, generally in response to specific challenges: climbing a telephone pole, scaling a wall, jumping in the air to clear obstacles or running as fast as possible. Cheetah, a cousin of BigDog, has held the speed record for a quadruped robot since 2012, hitting 45.5 km/h — better than Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt's best performance.

Over time, we've learned to make it very strong.

Atlas, also a DARPA project, continues to act as a technological showcase. About once a year, Boston Dynamics posts a new video on YouTube showing its progress, with millions, even tens of millions of views each time.

Over the years, the 1.5-meter, 89-kg headless humanoid has been seen jumping with both feet, running in the wild, rolling or doing parkour-style obstacles. His biggest hit, with 39 million views, was broadcast at the end of 2020 and shows him dancing to Do You Love Me, an old Motown label hit.

Each video requires months of preparation, and mobilizes some 40 people. "During preparations for the last video, the robot missed the landing of its somersault and broke its knee," recalls Robert Playter. "But that doesn't happen very often: over time, we've learned to make it very strong."

Boston Dynamic's humanoid Atlas robot climbs a ladder as people watch

Caption: Dec. 20, 2013 - Homestead, FL, United States of America - Boston Dynamic's Atlas robot during the DARPA Rescue Robot Showdown in 2013 in Homestead, FL. The DARPA event is to challenge teams to design robots that will conduct humanitarian, disaster relief and related operations. 

Raymond Sheh / ZUMA

Spot, the dog robot

While Atlas is used for research and development and to raise Boston Dynamics' profile, a much smaller machine is in charge of bringing in income: the Spot robot dog. A lighter version of the quadrupeds designed for the Pentagon in the early 2010s, it costs $75,000 USD and has sold over 1,000 units since its launch in 2019.

Like its predecessors, Spot can overcome steep terrain, keep its balance in almost all circumstances and go up and down stairs. It can also be remotely controlled or programmed to follow a predefined route, and can be fitted with an articulated arm (to turn a valve or open a door), an infrared camera (to record temperatures) or a Lidar sensor (to map an area in 3D).

"We're targeting three main areas," says Marc Theerman, Chief Strategy Officer at Boston Dynamics. "First, interventions in high-risk environments, where sending humans is complicated and dangerous — for example, due to radioactivity. Then, there are industrial inspections, where the aim is to carry out mundane, repetitive tasks, monitoring an installation by analyzing temperature or noise to warn of breakdowns or leaks. And finally, the academic world, where Spot is used as a platform for developing new applications."

Among the first buyers are American beer giant Anheuser Bush InBev, which uses it to inspect a brewery, and American security company Asylon, which combines it with an aerial drone to monitor warehouses.

In France, the Paris public transit agency (RATP), acquired a Spot in 2021 after a demo of the robot at the VivaTech trade show. Nicknamed Perceval, the dog is mainly used for inspection missions. "We monitor 35,000 structures, some of which are difficult or even dangerous to inspect, such as underground spaces (or) tunnels under metro stations," explains Hélène Bahezre de Lanlay, innovation program manager at RATP Infrastructures.

Perceval first carried out around 40 missions in different departments, to test out different possible scenarios. "These are generally simple missions, but in very complicated spaces, for which the robot's agility, remote eye or thermal camera are particularly useful." After a year, the dog was 'adopted' by the department responsible for inspecting engineering structures. "There are around 100 inspections a year that were not possible because they were too dangerous for our employees' safety, and for which we will be able to send in Perceval."

A stand against armed robots

In the U.S., Spot also works for police and fire departments. "The Massachusetts State Police use Spot to inspect abandoned packages that may contain explosives. Recently, police in a Florida town sent Spot before intervening to free a little boy kidnapped by his father," explains Playter, the Boston Dynamics CEO.

But this practice is not always well received. In April 2021, the New York Police Department had to return its Spot, whose first interventions had provoked an outcry. New York congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat, called the police robot dog a "ground surveillance drone," and one city councilor compared it to an episode of the TV series Black Mirror in which a woman is relentlessly pursued by a murderous quadruped robot.

The company's background in military research is no stranger to these concerns, and each new Atlas video inevitably provokes comments comparing it to Robocop or Terminator. At a time when the UN has failed to reach a consensus on banning autonomous lethal weapons, or "killer robots," Boston Dynamics has taken a clear stand on the subject.

Last October, the company published an open letter with five rival roboticists opposing the transformation of their machines into weapons of war. "We believe that adding weapons to remote-controlled or autonomous robots ... raises new risks of harm and serious ethical questions," say the authors, who call on "policymakers to work with us to promote the safe use of these robots and prohibit their misuse."

Stretch has to work inside wire cages to avoid injuring human 'colleagues.'
Marc Raibert, Chairman of Boston Dynamics presents a green "Spot" robot

Marc Raibert, Chairman of Boston Dynamics, participates in the AI conference ''AI.BAY 2023'' with the robot ''Spot'' in Munich, Germany

Sven Hoppe / ZUMA

Stretch, the right-hand robot

Stretch, the latest member of the Boston Dynamics family, is unlikely to end up as a soldier. This robotic arm with suction cups, mounted on a rolling cart, is designed for logistics warehouses. Its specialty? Emptying containers and semi-trailers from their boxes and placing them on conveyor belts, at a rate "equivalent to that of a human," explains Kevin Blankespoor, vice-president and head of the Warehouse Robotics division: "Stretch was specially designed for logistics. It's not a generic robot, like Atlas or Spot, even though it's designed using the same technological building blocks."

Should we be worried about the future of logistics jobs?

Stretch's development actually has its origins in a 2016 video showing Atlas moving boxes. "We had several calls from warehouse managers who wanted to buy one. So we thought there must be a need," recalls Robert Playter. A first attempt, Handle, had two arms suspended above two independent wheels.

Spectacular but too slow, Handle's days ended in the Boston Dynamics museum. Its successor, Stretch, is undoubtedly the least futuristic of the company's robots: it looks like the big mechanical arms that populate car factories and, like them, has to work inside wire cages to avoid injuring human 'colleagues.'

In a logistics sector that is becoming increasingly automated, Boston Dynamics executives see a bright future for Stretch. Distribution giant DHL Supply Chain signed a three-year, $15 million pre-order last year, and is now starting to implement Stretch in some of its warehouses. Boston Dynamics does not say how many robots have been ordered, nor does it give the price of Stretch, but Kevin Blankespoor estimates that it is "equivalent to the cost of two shifts over two years," and that, ultimately, a single employee should be able to supervise five Stretch robots.

Should we be worried about the future of logistics jobs? No, says the manager: "Our customers' real problem is that they can't find the workforce. You have to imagine what it's like to lift 20 kg boxes, in the cold or the heat, for whole days. It's a job marked by high turnover and frequent workplace accidents."

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How Parenthood Reinvented My Sex Life — Confessions Of A Swinging Mom

Between breastfeeding, playdates, postpartum fatigue, birthday fatigues and the countless other aspects of mother- and fatherhood, a Cuban couple tries to find new ways to explore something that is often lost in the middle of the parenting storm: sex.

red tinted photo of feet on a bed

Parenting v. intimacy, a delicate balance

Silvana Heredia

HAVANA — It was Summer, 2015. Nine months later, our daughter would be born. It wasn't planned, but I was sure I wouldn't end my first pregnancy. I was 22 years old, had a degree, my dream job and my own house — something unthinkable at that age in Cuba — plus a three-year relationship, and the summer heat.

I remember those months as the most fun, crazy and experimental of my pre-motherhood life. It was the time of my first kiss with a girl, and our first threesome.

Every weekend, we went to the Cuban art factory and ended up at the CornerCafé until 7:00 a.m. That September morning, we were very drunk, and in that second-floor room of my house, it was unbearably hot. The sex was otherworldly. A few days later, the symptoms began.

She arrived when and how she wished. That's how rebellious she is.

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