Boston Dynamics' Atlas bot is dead and its replacement is horrifying yet fascinating in equal measure

A screenshot of a video showing the new version of the Boston Dynamics Atlas robot, rising upwards in menacing fashion
(Image credit: Boston Dynamics)

We mere humans are destined, one day, to be no more. For our robot friends however, death comes in the form of retirement, and Boston Dynamics has announced that its original Atlas robot has finally been put out to greener pastures, or in this case, probably boxed up in a crate at the back of the lab.

The good news is, there's a replacement. And the bad news is, it's the sort of thing that haunts my post-apocalyptic dreams at night.

Boston Dynamics first revealed its Atlas humanoid robot back in 2013, created as a contest entry for the US Department of Defence (via The Verge). Standing at 6 feet two inches tall and weighing in at 330 pounds, this hydraulically powered machine kept us entertained over the years with its various improvements and iterations, eventually ending up as not only an impressive parkour enthusiast, but as a robot depicted as a friendly, if perhaps slightly show-off human helping hand.

There's no need for a robot fetching your tools on a construction site to finish off with a twist-flip, but by golly we all liked to see it. Thanks Atlas. Now make the tea, if you're so bloody clever.

The new model, however, doesn't seem quite so friendly. Unlike the previous Atlas and its relatively old-school hydraulics, the latest iteration is powered by electric joint motors that not only allow for a slimmer, trimmed-down design, but also enable it to move its limbs, torso and head a full 360 degrees, creating a humanoid robot that seems capable of facing you at all times.

This is undoubtedly very impressive, and Boston Dynamics says that this sort of flexibility allows Atlas to move in "ways that exceed human capabilities". Not only that, but Atlas now has "Athletic Intelligence" that allows it to adapt to new environments on the fly, the ability to dynamically manipulate objects using both its "hands", and real-time perception features to see its surroundings. 

Hyundai will begin testing the robot on its automotive production lines in the next few years, and I can well believe that all these new capabilities will enable it to perform all sorts of robot-assisted production techniques that a regular human would be unsuited to.

My question is though: Did you really have to release a video that makes it look quite so horrifying in action? Showing off flexibility is one thing, but watching Atlas 2: The Revenge unfurl itself from the floor in ways only a horror movie creation would move, orient its head and torso towards you, stomp towards the camera like you've just spilt its pint, then stride off out of frame is a hair-raising experience.

I'm certain that, as Atlas leaves the scene, it's setting off to do a multitude of useful tasks. However, years of conditioning have left me with the distinct impression that I should be watching my back, lest the new Atlas suddenly drop from some scenery and twist my head in ways it may well be capable of, yet my fragile spine is not.

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Still, it's a massively impressive display of the new robot's capabilities, although whether it's as adept at gymnastics as its predecessor remains to be seen. I can't help but feel that Boston Dynamics knows what it's doing with this latest display, as leaning in on the slightly horrifying aspects of its new creation is certain to create a buzz.

For what it's worth, Atlas, should you ever be imbued with an AI-intelligence that allows you to read this piece, know that I for one am a fan, and think you are a magnificent piece of engineering. I wish you well for the future, and also never to figure out where I live.

Andy Edser
Hardware Writer

Andy built his first gaming PC at the tender age of 12, when IDE cables were a thing and high resolution wasn't. After spending over 15 years in the production industry overseeing a variety of live and recorded projects, he started writing his own PC hardware blog for a year in the hope that people might send him things. Sometimes they did.

Now working as a hardware writer for PC Gamer, Andy can be found quietly muttering to himself and drawing diagrams with his hands in thin air. It's best to leave him to it.