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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press A Boston Dynamics SpotMini robot walks through a conference room during a robotics summit in Boston. In the background is company founder Marc Raibert. Little is known about the secretive robotics company.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018 1:00 am

Robotics firm gives glimpse at intentions

Associated Press

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.

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 in the Boston suburb of Waltham, Massachusetts.

But after The Associated Press spoke with 10 people who have worked with Boston Dynamics or its 68-year-old founder, Marc Raibert, the CEO agreed to a brief interview in late May. Raibert had just 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.”