In movies, they make it look easy. But in the real world, training robots to walk or run is the challenge of a lifetime. Marc Raibert, chairman and cofounder of Boston Dynamics, has been at it since the late 1970s. With hundreds of his famous four-legged Spot robots in service around the world, it’s fair to say that Raibert and his colleagues have figured it out.
Now it’s time to tackle something almost as challenging, and perhaps more profitable — unloading trucks.
Raibert’s fascination with robot legs began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he completed his doctorate in artificial intelligence in 1977. “I went to a presentation where someone showed a very slow-moving legged robot,” said Raibert. “I thought, wow, people and animals aren’t anything like that. ... People and animals have such fantastic locomotion. That was a thing to try to emulate and achieve.”
His research on legged robots continued during stints on the faculties of Carnegie Mellon University and MIT. Then came the 1992 founding of Boston Dynamics, which spent much of its early life conducting research in legged robots for the US military. But in 2019, along came Spot, the doglike four-legged machine that can run, climb stairs, and even dance to the Bruno Mars hit “Uptown Funk.” Spot, the company’s first commercial product, has been a solid hit despite its base price of $75,000.
But Boston Dynamics’ latest robot, Stretch, is a different sort of beast, because, well, it hasn’t got a leg to stand on. Stretch is a wheeled robot that can roll into a semi-trailer or shipping container and quickly unload its contents, using a mechanical arm that can lift up to 50 pounds. Stretch could become an instant best-seller when it begins shipping later this year.
“We just announced them as being available commercially,” said Raibert, “and we’re sold out the rest of the year and early next year.”
It’s the Waltham-based company’s first foray into the hot market for warehouse and logistical robots, a sector well-represented in Greater Boston — which is home to Amazon Robotics, Locus Robotics, and Berkshire Grey, to name a few. Raibert said that’s because the region has lots of people who can not only write code but also build good hardware.
Still, he noted that even the most agile of today’s robots are kind of dumb. “They don’t understand what’s going on in the world around them,” said Raibert. “They don’t even understand the consequences of their own actions.” This deep digital ignorance makes it much harder to program robots, or to turn them loose to freely interact with people.
So for Raibert, “the next stage in robotics is to start making them smarter.” That’s not quite as cool-looking as a robot that can dance, but it could be a lot more useful.