In a large warehouse-like room, two humanoid robots embark on an obstacle course. Their barrel-shaped torsos, stuffed with processors and batteries, make it look like they go to the gym a lot but neglected the leg day. They run and jump, up and down boulders and inclined steps much like the qualifying round of the American Ninja Warrior Obstacle Course Show. We run along a beam and then, later, we fly over it. For the final, they position themselves at opposite corners of a table and perform two synchronized back flips. With their feet on the ground, they celebrate: one brushes his shoulders, the other raises his arms in triumph. Neither, of course, sweated.
This is a parkour showcase from robotics company Boston Dynamics, demonstrating the capabilities of its Atlas model. Like a gymnastic routine, the sequence of movements is here entirely choreographed, programmed by a team of engineers. The fluidity of movement makes the robots seem like digital animations, like something out of a movie: what we are watching is a simulation of human movement, modeled and designed on computers. It’s just that instead of CGI cartoon characters fooling our brains into moving 24 frames per second, these robots tumble through physical reality.