For internet-goers, Boston Dynamics is that company that uploads insane videos of the humanoid Atlas robot doing backflips, of four-legged SpotMini opening doors and fighting off stick-wielding men, and as of last week, of a Segway-on-mescaline called Handle jetting around picking up and stacking boxes with a vacuum arm. For journalists and industry watchers, however, Boston Dynamics is that company that almost never talks about where all of this work is ultimately headed. The company is now teasing its ambitions as the four-legged SpotMini nears its commercial release. Today, Boston Dynamics is getting even more explicit about its vision with an announcement that it's acquired a Silicon Valley startup called Kinema Systems, which builds vision software that helps industrial robot arms manipulate boxes. This acquisition is giving the Handle robot the gray matter it needs to follow SpotMini to market.
While Boston Dynamics' robots make for fascinating -- sometimes disturbing -- internet videos, they haven't quite crossed into everyday life. That could change sooner rather than later. Boston Dynamics took a big step toward bringing its box-moving (and running, jumping, dishwashing) robots into the real world with its acquisition of Kinema Systems. Kinema is a Menlo Park-based company that uses deep learning to give robotic arms the 3D vision they need to locate and move boxes. It can recognize different products and handle boxes of different sizes, even if they're not perfectly level.
It's the undisputed heavyweight champion of AI held up as proof of machines hell-bent on the destruction of humanity. In my experience seeing Atlas do parkour and backflips, and four-legged Spot robots get pushed around by humans, Boston Dynamics is a close second. These robots fascinate and terrify people. If facial recognition software and Amazon's Alexa are held up as popular examples of surveillance capitalism, Boston Dynamics videos are usually shoved in my face by people afraid of these robots' mobility and physical prowess. This is partially due to the advanced robotics and unique design, and partially due to the success of a YouTube campaign over the course of the past six months in which each video sucks up millions of views.
Boston Dynamics has taught its fleet of SpotMini robot dogs a new trick: The robotics company posted a new video featuring ten of the mechanical canines hauling a cargo truck up a slightly inclined hill like a team of sled dogs. The video was shared to the company's popular YouTube page on Tuesday. In the above video, two lines of SpotMini's are tethered together and marched in unison to inch a semi-truck in neutral gear forward. As with pretty much every video Boston Dynamics publishes, it elicited a flurry of Black Mirror, Terminator, and robot overlord-themed references across social media. But Boston Dynamics promises that its famous SpotMinis are here to help humans, not to rule them.
A keen-eyed new robot looks poised to snag an important everyday warehouse job. Kinema Systems, a startup based in Menlo Park, California, has developed a robot capable of breaking down pallets of boxes no matter what size or shape they are or how they are packed together. This is a routine job at thousands of large stores, warehouses, and shipping companies--the aftermath of goods making their way through the supply line to your front door. The new robot uses a simple suction system to grab boxes, but it needs state-of-the-art computer vision and machine learning to figure out how to grab them. The machine does not need to be programmed at all--instead, it automatically calibrates itself and teaches itself how to break boxes down.