Robotics master Marc Raibert makes machines smarter and more useful

In the 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, president and co-founder 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 get the hang of it.

Now it’s time to tackle something almost as difficult, and perhaps more profitable: unloading trucks.

Raibert’s fascination with robot legs began at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received his doctorate in artificial intelligence in 1977. “I went to a presentation where someone showed a robot with very slow legs”, Raibert said. “I thought, wow, people and animals aren’t like that. … People and animals have fantastic locomotion. It was something 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 youth researching legged robots for the US military. But in 2019 came Spot, the four-legged, dog-like machine that can run, climb stairs, and even dance to Bruno Mars’ hit “Uptown Funk.” Spot, the company’s first commercial product, was a hit despite its $75,000 base price.

But Boston Dynamics’ latest robot, Stretch, is a different kind of beast because, well, it doesn’t have a leg to stand on. Stretch is a wheeled robot that can roll into a tractor-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 starts shipping later this year.

“We just announced them as commercially available,” Raibert said, “and we’re sold out the rest of the year and into early next year.”

It’s the Waltham-based company’s first foray into the hot market for warehouse and logistics robots, a sector well represented in Greater Boston – home to Amazon Robotics, Locus Robotics and Berkshire Grey, for n to name a few. Raibert said that’s because the region has a lot of people who can not only write code, but also build good hardware.

Stretch, a Boston Dynamics robot designed to load and unload trucks in warehousesBoston Dynamics

Still, he noted that even today’s most nimble robots are a bit dumb. “They don’t understand what’s going on in the world around them,” Raibert said. “They don’t even understand the consequences of their own actions.” This deep digital ignorance makes it much more difficult to program robots or free them to freely interact with people.

So, for Raibert, “the next step in robotics is to start making them smarter.” It’s not as cool as a robot that can dance, but it could be a lot more useful.

Hiawatha Bray can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.

James G. Williams