bust a move

Are the Boston Dynamics robots really dancing? The creepy video, explained

No, dancing robots aren’t the next TikTok dance stars.

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It’s one thing to have your cabbage patch or running man shown up by Zoomers on TikTok, but it’s another level of embarrassment to have a robot out dance you.

That’s exactly what Boston Dynamics’ cohort of robots — including its dog Spot and more human-like bot Atlas — did in a video that resurfaced on Twitter this weekend. Swaying to the tune of the 1962 classic “Do You Love Me?” by the Contours, the robotic dance team inspired awe, disbelief, and dread in users.

But while online lamenting over the robot apocalypse is nearly always tongue-in-cheek, the engineering achievement lurking behind Spot’s dance moves means this reality could be much closer and darker than we realize.

Are the Boston Dynamics dancing robots real?

It is difficult to believe your eyes when you watch the Boston Dynamics robots bust a move — albeit jerkily — in the December 2020 video that made new Twitter rounds this weekend. But while there are several deep fake and CGI videos out there of Boston Dynamic look-a-likes performing unbelievable feats (e.g., fighting back against humans), the dance moves performed in this video are 100 percent authentic.

“They don’t improvise at all.”

And so are dances the robots have done since this video, including a coordinated dance with BTS this June to celebrate the company being acquired by Hyundai.

But don’t be fooled — Spot and Atlas don’t know they’re dancing, Boston Dynamics roboticist Eric Whitman explains in a story about the project.

“Everything had to be worked out in advance and scripted precisely,” said Whitman. “Robots have the advantage over humans in that they’re very repeatable: Once you get it right, it stays right. But they have the disadvantage that you have to tell them every little detail. They don’t improvise at all.”

How do Boston Dynamics’ robots dance?

Instead of using artificial intelligence or even computer vision to sense their surroundings, these bots are simply carrying out carefully programmed and designed dance routines.

Using a Boston Dynamics interface called Choreographer, engineers and designers drag and drop different movements for the robots’ 20+ actuators to decide exactly how and when it moves to the beat.

Monica Thomas is a professional choreographer and dancer and is responsible for much of the seamlessness behind these robotic dances. In a story about the project, she said that one of her biggest challenges was trying to think like a dancing robot.

“When I try to replay the choreography on my own body, my knees bend the wrong way, even if I put myself on all fours,” said Thomas. “I have less knowledge about what things even could look like, and so I have a lot more flexibility about what it does look like.”

But while dancing robots are a fun novelty and a creative outlet for Boston Dynamics’ engineers, Whitman said it serves a practical purpose as well: improving how the robots move.

“Dancing is a form of highly accelerated lifecycle testing for the hardware.”

Spot’s knees and endurance are just some of the traits improved during the prototyping and testing of these dance moves.

From pirouettes to police — While the improvements in handling and dynamic movement achieved through these dance projects may very well propel the Boston Dynamic bots to TikTok stardom, it’s more likely that these improvements will be used in military and police bots already in use today.

Both Massachusetts and New York City have tested these police dogs (to mixed public reviews), and Honolulu recently invested in their own Spot to patrol homeless camps in the city.

So in the robotic uprising, should you be worried about these light-footed robots coming for you and your family? Maybe not. But you should be worried about them coming for your most vulnerable neighbors.

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