Boston Dynamics and Biomimicry

Boston Dynamics

For years, Boston Dynamics has been working on “changing your idea of what robots can do.” Their quadruped robot Spot has gone through quite the transformation from what I would consider the stuff of sci-fi horror to what can now only be called lovable. Meanwhile, Atlas is becoming more and more humanoid every day, able to balance on one leg, jump and spin 360º in the air, and even do a shoulder roll. I’m not going to make a judgment call on whether or not Boston Dynamics’ robots will someday enslave humanity, but one thing’s for certain, they can already dance better than I can. If you haven’t already seen the “Do You Love Me?” video they recently released, stop reading this, go watch that, pick your jaw up off the floor, and then come back.

I’m not a programmer, so I don’t really know the answer to this question either, but do you have any idea the insane complexity involved in motion like that? The movement in that video is so smooth, I thought it was motion capture at first. Just in writing this post, I got distracted watching an hour of videos on Boston Dynamics’ YouTube Channel. You can watch the evolution of how fluid their robot’s motions have become even in just the last few years. The most incredible part of it all isn’t where they are now, but how far they’ve come in that relatively short period of time.

Where will Boston Dynamics Robots be in the future?

Wherever people go. One of the core ideas behind what Boston Dynamics is doing is that their robots are designed to maneuver environments and execute tasks that historically, only humans have been able to handle. This is not to displace humans and increase our unemployed population, but rather to remove humans from harmful occupations to preserve human life and increase the quality thereof. We’re already seen a lot of success using bomb disposal robots to keep the human experts out of harm’s way. But not every bomb is located in a convenient, accessible place for these wheeled robots. Boston Dynamics has recognized that to go where people go, their robots would need more than wheels. They would need legs.

Biomimicry

Mimicking what we see in nature to solve engineering problems is called biomimicry. Check out the podcast 30 Animals That Made Us Smarter to hear how in Japan, Eiji Nakatsu and his team modeled the nose of a bullet train after the beak of a kingfisher to reduce noise and drag. We’ve also learned from the bees (and plentiful other places in nature) that hexagons are the best shapes to tesselate for strength and to maximize surface area for a given perimeter. And Boston Dynamics has learned from nature that accessibility to uneven and hard to reach places requires legs. So why hasn’t this been done effectively in the past? Walking on two legs, or even four, is really an incredible feat of balance, requiring micro-adjustment and stabilization. Picture a child walking for the first time and the struggle they have trying to keep their whole body balanced above two tiny feet. It’s only our biological design and years of practice that have made legged animals adept at traversing all manner of terrains and completing complex physical tasks, all while balanced on one to four legs (yes, I’m aware of insects and other many-legged creatures, but for the sake of comparison to Boston Dynamics’ robots, I’ll keep it to four).

In the animal kingdom, we have tools to keep us balanced—inner ears, muscles that all communicate through a central nervous system that is lightning fast and coordinated via an unbeatable neural network called the brain. Because robots don’t have the same natural biology we do, humans have to put those incredible brains to work creating tools especially for them—accelerometers, hydraulic and pneumatic joints, and computers and programs to control these systems. That’s exactly what Boston Dynamics is doing and they are doing it incredibly well.

I see a bright future where more and more dangerous occupations can be handled by capable robots, while humans can spend their time on endeavors that are safer and more fulfilling, and I applaud Boston Dynamics and other innovative companies for leading the march toward this robotic future.