How did Michael Crichton, Sean Connery, and Wesley Snipes factor into the creation of a preeminent robotics firm?
The story begins on the movie set of the 1993 action thriller “Rising Sun,” starring Connery and Snipes and based off the Crichton novel of the same name.
It was during a week of filming under the hot California sun that Marc Raibert, then a professor at MIT, realized there was more work to do.
“We were providing robots for the background of a scene in the movie,” said Raibert. “And we were there for a week. And it was a week of hell.”
On set, Raibert said the heat, among other things, was a variable not present in the controlled MIT lab and for a time “nothing worked right.” It was around this time that Raibert decided create Boston Dynamics.
The reclusive company is known for their occasional viral videos, most notably one where its robots danced the Mashed Potato to the song “Do You Love Me?” last year. Earlier this year, they agreed to let 60 Minutes correspondent Anderson Cooper into their New England headquarters for a to advance robotic capabilities.
“I think there are three really key pieces in robotics,” said Kevin Blankespoor, one of the lead engineers at Boston Dynamics. “There is vision, there is mobility, and there is manipulation.”
Unlike many Hollywood films where robots are portrayed with advanced, human-like artificial intelligence, Boston Dynamics places a focus on what it calls “athletic intelligence,” which is the ability of machines to control things like balance, posture, and the way they move.
The company’s “build it, break it, fix it” approach means their machines are pushed, sometimes literally, in order to gather data and advance their capabilities.
“This generation of robots is going to be different,” said Robert Playter, the CEO of Boston Dynamics. “They’re going to work amongst us. They’re going to work next to us in ways where we help them, but they also take some of the burden from us.”
Boston Dynamics hopes humans may soon work alongside robots in more ways. In March, on 60 Minutes, the company debuted one of its newest creations – a robot they call “Stretch.” The company said it can move 800 boxes an hour in a warehouse and operate for up to 16 consecutive hours without changing its battery.
Some have raised concerns about whether advancements in robotics could lead to more automation and job losses for humans. Robert Playter, Boston Dynamics’ CEO, thinks these concerns are overblown.
“At the same time, you’re creating a new industry,” Playter told 60 Minutes. “We envision a job we like to call the ‘robot wrangler.’ He’ll launch and manage five to 10 robots at a time and sort of keep them all working.”
“Stretch” is due to go on sale next year. Currently, Boston Dynamic’s four-legged, dog-like robot “Spot” is on the market, starting at around $75,000 apiece.
“Spot” can be found working in a variety of settings from construction sites to police investigations. The potential for its future use remains as grand as the imagination of those willing to buy one.
As for the future of Boston Dynamics, Marc Raibert’s brainchild has come a long way from those struggles on the Rising Sun set – his company is now building robots that would seem right at home in a high-budget sci-fi film.
The video above was originally published on March 28, 2021 and was produced by Keith Zubrow and Sarah Shafer Prediger. It was edited by Sarah Shafer Prediger.
Footage of “Spot” in Chernobyl courtesy of the University of Bristol, United Kingdom