What's tricky is figuring out how customizable to make such an advanced machine. Higher-level customization—getting Spot to recognize certain objects or walk certain routes—is one thing. But BD isn’t particularly interested in letting clients toy with how the robot’s joints work in concert to produce that famous agility. “We're assuming that our customers believe that we've got that problem solved,” says Perry. “It's not how it gets from point A to B. It's that it gets from point A to B while doing something that I care about.”
By making the SDK public, BD is opening up a platform to coders and roboticists of diverse specialties. “Developers will still need to become part of the early adopter program to lease the robot to execute their code,” adds Perry, “but all interested parties will now be able to view the SDK and existing early adopters can open source their own code.” BD is also announcing today that it’ll be putting on a developer conference in May in Boston.And as those machines grow more capable, BD itself is transitioning: Longtime boss Marc Raibert is moving from CEO to chairman, with Robert Playter, the company’s COO, taking his place. “This is partly a transition away from us being a research-only shop to a company that's fielding commercial products,” says Perry. “So [Raibert] is still setting higher-level vision for pushing forward the envelope on robotics development at Boston Dynamics.”
But with increasingly advanced robots like Spot come increasingly sticky PR problems. From politicians and economists we're getting dire warnings about how the machines will replace humans in the workforce . It’s true that as robots have gotten better at sensing the world, they’ve been freed from factory floors, where they worked in isolation from humans. As they get better at navigating our world—be it as self-driving trucks or delivery robots —the concern is they’ll muscle people out of jobs.Nevertheless, the outside world is awful for robots. Humanoid robots have nowhere near our stability to stay upright, never mind getting back up. Wheels may give them some traction, but then are confounded by stairs. The world outside an orderly factory is unpredictable and treacherous, even for as nimble a machine as Spot. Humans still need to hold Spot’s paw—it can only autonomously navigate an environment after you show it around. It still can’t manipulate objects. And you have to swap out its battery if you want continuous operation.
For internet-goers, Boston Dynamics is that company that uploads insane videos of the humanoid Atlas robot doing backflips, of four-legged SpotMini opening doors and fighting off stick-wielding men, and as of last week, of a Segway-on-mescaline called Handle jetting around picking up and stacking boxes with a vacuum as its arm.