Why is this former defense contractor making creepy, life-size animal robots?
By MATT O'BRIEN | Associated Press | Published: June 6, 2018
BOSTON — It's never been clear whether robotics company Boston Dynamics is making killing machines, household helpers, or something else entirely.
For nine years, the secretive firm — which got its start with U.S. military funding — has unnerved people around the world with YouTube videos of experimental robots resembling animal predators.
In one, a life-size robotic wildcat sprints across a parking lot at almost 20 miles an hour. In another, a small wheeled rover nicknamed SandFlea abruptly flings itself onto rooftops — and back down again. A more recent effort features a slender dog-like robot that climbs stairs, holds its own in a tug-of-war with a human and opens a door to let another robot pass.
Former employees say the company has operated more as a well-funded research lab than a business. The vision of the company's 68-year-old founder, Marc Raibert, was kept alive for years through military contracts, especially from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA. A federal contracting database lists more than $150 million in defense funding to Boston Dynamics since 1994.
With support from DARPA, Boston Dynamics worked on BigDog, a robot designed to carry heavy loads of ammo and other supplies, but it was just too noisy to bring to a fight.
Boston Dynamics has demonstrated little interest in elaborating on these glimpses into a possible future of fast, strong and sometimes intimidating robots. For months, the company and its parent, SoftBank, rebuffed numerous requests seeking information about its work. When a reporter visited company headquarters in the Boston suburb of Waltham, Mass., he was turned away.
Boston Dynamics said only it believes a quarter-century of work on robots will "unlock a very high commercial value." It did not answer when asked if it ever entertained proposals to weaponize them.
Raibert agreed to a brief interview in late May after he had demonstrated the machine that will be the company's first commercial robot in its 26-year history: the dog-like, door-opening SpotMini, which Boston Dynamics plans to sell to businesses as a camera-equipped security guard next year.
Speculation about Boston Dynamics' intentions — weapons or servants? — spikes every time it releases a new video. Raibert told the AP that he doesn't rule out future military applications. But he played down popular fears that his company's robots could one day be used to kill.
"We think about that, but that's also true for cars, airplanes, computers, lasers," Raibert said, clad in his omnipresent Hawaiian shirt. "Every technology you can imagine has multiple ways of using it. If there's a scary part, it's just that people are scary. I don't think the robots by themselves are scary."
The bigger question of just what Boston Dynamics hopes to accomplish remains murky.
Interviews with eight former Boston Dynamics employees and some of Raibert's former academic collaborators suggest that that the company has long brushed aside commercial demands, not to mention outsiders' moral or ethical concerns, in single-minded pursuit of machines that mimic animal locomotion.
Building robots that can jump, gallop or prowl like animals was a fringe field of engineering when Raibert and his colleagues began studying kangaroo and ostrich videos in their Carnegie Mellon University research lab nearly 40 years ago.
But agile robots aren't so sci-fi anymore, even if they can still seem that way. In videos, the company's robots wander through a variety of locales — in and around the company's single-story headquarters, at a New Hampshire ski lodge and across the secluded meadows and woodlands near Raibert's home. In some videos, humans kick the robots or jab them with hockey sticks to test their balance.
The company's robot videos have not been independently verified.
The defense contracts began winding down in 2013 when Google bought Boston Dynamics and made clear it wanted no part in military work. Initially, some employees felt a sense of relief and cautious optimism after a pep talk by Andy Rubin, then Google's chief robotics executive and architect of the acquisition.
"He was talking about really ambitious goals," said one former employee, who asked not to be identified because of concerns it could hurt career opportunities in the small and tight-knit U.S. robotics community. "A robot that might be able to help the elderly and infirm. Robots that work in grocery stores. Robots that deliver packages."
But Rubin left the company the following year and his replacements overseeing Boston Dynamics grew increasingly frustrated with Raibert's approach, according to several people familiar with the transition. Among the concerns: Boston Dynamics' lack of focus on building a sellable product.
By 2016, Google was looking to sell the firm — eventually finding an interested buyer in Japanese tech giant SoftBank, which already has a robotics portfolio that includes the cute humanoid Pepper. The deal closed earlier this year.
SoftBank declined to say anything about its plans, but Boston Dynamics' latest job postings reveal a heightened emphasis on finding something that sells. One posting seeks a "robot evangelist" to help find "market-driven" applications for the machines in logistics, construction and commercial security.