Atlas doesn’t shrug. But he teeters, loses his grip, stutters and staggers.
His task one afternoon is to clear a debris field. After many agonizing moments, in a set of abrupt and jerky movements, he crouches and with painstaking precision manages to grasp a two-by-four board and then drop it to his right. At the rate he is moving, completing the chore might take days.
Atlas in this case is an imposing, six-foot-tall humanoid robot that evokes the bipedal “Star Wars” robot C-3PO. It stands in a cluttered robotics laboratory here at Worcester Polytechnic Institute where a team of students, engineers and software hackers are training the 330-pound bundle of sensors, computers, metal struts, joints and cables.
Seven teams are working with Atlas robots, manufactured by Boston Dynamics, a small military-funded research firm based in Waltham, Mass. Like the others, the Worcester team is preparing for a December contest held by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The contest is meant to accelerate work in the field of robotics by prototyping machines that can work effectively and autonomously in extreme emergencies, like the failure of a nuclear power plant.
The vision evokes decades of sci-fi movies like “I, Robot” in which self-directed walking machines glide through the world with grace and precision. At the moment the gap between that dream and reality is daunting.
The immensity of the challenge is underscored by the fact that, here in the lab, Atlas remains tethered — “on belay,” in the mountain climbing sense. Like a toddler learning to walk, it wears a safety harness, and whenever it moves, its human operators, equipped with safety glasses, position themselves behind a transparent plastic enclosure.