Here’s another thing robots can do better than you: backflips. Boston Dynamics, the MIT offshoot company now owned by Japanese tech giant SoftBank, showed off the latest iteration of their bipedal Atlas robot in a video released Thursday. At first viewing, the mobility of a 4 foot 9 inch, approximately 165-pound hydraulic machine is mind-boggling. But are robots going to steal Simone Biles’ job, too?
Atlas has made cheer-worthy progress since 2013, when Boston Dynamics debuted it at a robotics challenge sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and 2015, when it competed in the finals of the competition. Essentially, the federal government hosted a contest where humanoid robots had to complete a series of simple tasks useful in the case of a nuclear power plant disaster, like traveling up a one- to two-degree incline with scattered obstacles, shutting off a valve, opening a door to enter a building. It was a fail-fest. Making a basic bipedal robot is no small feat, but they were like high-tech toddlers. The competition’s finals spawned video reels of off-kilter robots crashing to the ground. By comparison, this version of Atlas is pretty impressive (and significantly less creepy than Boston Dynamics’ SpotMini, a spindly yellow robotic dog).
But we wanted to know how impressive, so Slate asked a gymnastics coach to rate Atlas’ parkour skills. According to gymnastics coach Aryan Mazloum, Atlas’ backflip—a back salto, if you want the technical term—is not bad. “It’s pretty fantastic to be able see a robot have the center of gravity and be able to not only just move, but literally flip and catch itself,” said Mazloum, a junior Olympic coach at Northern Virginia’s Capital Gymnastics National Training Center. (He’s also working toward a Ph.D. in informatics at George Mason University.)
The back salto, Mazloum explains, is “an intermediate skill” that coaches introduce in the fifth level of USA Gymnastics, when students tend to be 9 to 11 years old. For a robot, it takes incredible spatial awareness. In a back salto, says Mazloum, “you want to be able to go as high as you can, and you want to be able to land as close to where you take off as possible.” To do that, the gymnast has to squat, throw her arms up by her ears so her body is a straight line (in gymnast-speak, opening the shoulder angle and the hip), then contract into a “closed” position again. By these standards, Atlas’ trick is “not the cleanest flip,” explains Mazloum.
Here’s Mazloum’s critique: Atlas didn’t quite get to that open position, “so it didn’t really get the full vertical that we look for. That’s why it went backwards a little bit.” But, he adds, it’s “still astonishing that it did that, though.” (By the way, at the end of the video, where Atlas falls? That’s again probably because it didn’t get enough height, which means it didn’t have the time to rotate, and then since the robot lacks toes, it couldn’t push into the ground to counterbalance.)
Still, Mazloum gives the robot kudos: “It was a good landing, I’ll say that.” In gymnastics, you don’t score individual components, only full routines. But Mazloum made an exception for Atlas: 3.5/5 for its back salto.