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Roboticists say Boston Dynamic’s new nightmare robot is unlike anything ever seen before

Handle can move with confidence — and carry 100 pounds.

Boston Dynamics, the Alphabet-owned robotics company, unveiled a new robot this week that robotics experts say is unlike anything they’ve ever seen before.

The massive legged, wheeled machine is called Handle. Marc Raibert, the CEO of Boston Dynamics, called it “nightmare inducing.” (Video of Handle was first seen in January, when venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson posted a YouTube video of Raibert introducing the new creation at a conference.)

“It’s very impressive,” said Vikash Kumar, a robotics researcher at the University of Washington. “Nothing like this has been shown before.”

What sets Handle apart is its ability to move with confidence and an understanding of what its body is capable of — it’s remarkably lifelike. Robots are usually stiff, slow and careful. They’re programmed to be cautious in their movements.

“This robot is using the momentum of its body. These dynamic movements are not what we know robots to be able to do,” said Kumar. “There are other robots that have the hardware capabilities of doing something similar, but on the algorithmic side, we’re not at the point where we can really leverage those capabilities.”

But Handle appears to be getting close.

“What's most impressive is how dynamic and powerful it is, while still being stable and, mostly, in control,” said Siddhartha Srinivasa, a professor of computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon, who specializes in robotic manipulation. Srinivasa is moving to teach at the University of Washington next year.

The robot may one day be used in warehouses, as illustrated by the video released by Boston Dynamics. It can jump over hurdles and land on its wheeled feet, lift a single leg while moving, stroll in the snow and go down stairs.

Handle can also carry a payload of 100 pounds, which roboticists say is impressive for its size and shape.

“The field at the moment is trying build robots to take care of really small, low-weight objects,” said Kumar. “To deal with an object that is comparable with its own weight changes the whole ballgame altogether.”

Robots in warehouses now often act like mechanical shelving, carrying items from one part of the facility to another, saving humans time and future back problems. Kiva’s robots — from the warehouse robotics company that Amazon bought in 2014, for example — followed barcoded stickers on the floor.

To be sure, Handle probably has a long way to go before taking a step on a job site.

“It is important to remember that there are many perception and control challenges in getting such a machine to operate reliably in a real warehouse,” said Ken Goldberg, a robotics professor at Berkeley.

It’s not that Handle is necessarily any more dangerous than other industrial robots, which have killed people who got in their way — like what happened when an engineer at a Volkswagen plant in Germany was crushed to death in 2015 by a stationary factory robot.

Still, industrial robots have stringent safety standards and often have kill zones that humans are supposed to avoid when the machine is operating. And Handle, with all its confidence and dynamic movements, will have to be explicit about its intent as it operates around humans.

“It’s like a car with a blinker sign,” said Kumar. “We need to create ways to communicate so that humans can anticipate what a robot is trying to do and not be surprised by their action.”

It’s also not clear how Boston Dynamics plans to prepare or market its robot for the real world.

Google bought the robotics lab in 2013 under the direction of Android founder Andy Rubin, who had hired around 300 robotics engineers with Google.

But Rubin left Google in 2014 to start his own hardware incubator. The search giant put Boston Dynamics up for sale last year after public relations at Alphabet expressed concerns that the nightmarish robots they made — like the two-legged humanoid Atlas and its massive robotic dog named Spot — were “terrifying” and “ready to take human jobs.”

Though Google has — puzzlingly — yet to find a buyer for Boston Dynamics, the team clearly hasn’t stopped moving.

“This is one of the most remarkable robots I have seen in a long time,” said Srinivasa. “Boston Dynamics is truly the Apple of robotics, when it comes to tightly integrating hardware design with software and artificial intelligence.”


This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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