It wasn’t that long ago that maintaining balance was a big problem with the design of humanoid robots. Getting them to make the fine adjustments that we make every time we stand up, walk, and move about required an impressive collection of sensors, gyroscopes, accelerometers, tilt switches and more, not to mention a massive number of calculations to coordinate lateral balance and torque. Just getting a robot to walk across an even surface was an achievement of note.

But now, Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot can do more than just walk. It can jog, jump from box to box, parkour though a difficult course, and, as of this week, perform gymnastics moves that can take humans years to learn including a twisting jump (watch the video above).

How is this possible? According to Boston Dynamics’ press release, “We created the maneuvers using new techniques that streamline the development process. First, an optimization algorithm transforms high-level descriptions of each maneuver into dynamically feasible reference motions. Then Atlas tracks the motions using a model predictive controller that smoothly blends from one maneuver to the next. Using this approach, we developed the routine significantly faster than previous Atlas routines, with a performance success rate of about 80%.”

Founded in 1992, Boston Dynamics developed their first robot, the quadrupedal Big Dog, in 2005 as a transport device for soldiers in Iran but was shelved when it was deemed too noisy for use in combat. It eventually gave way to LS3 (Legged Squad Support System) in 2012, able to operate in hot, cold, wet, and dirty environments. Still too noisy, the Marine Corp put LS3 in storage in 2015 as repair was complicated and fitting the unit into a typical Marine patrol was challenging.

Atlas, a bipedal humanoid robot based on an earlier design named PETMAN (Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin) was unveiled in 2016, and by 2018 was running a parkour course, including two-foot high steps onto a platform.

But Atlas has his competition. 2014’s Kodomoroid (based on “kodomo,” the Japanese word for child),  from Japan is a robot made to look like a human female and serve as a news anchor. Created under the leadership of Japanese robotics expert Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro, she can not only read and understand the news but can also interact with her co-anchors in a limited way.

Bina48 (Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture) from Hanson Robotics is pushing the boundaries of both artificial intelligence and machine learning. She can respond to questions, hold a conversation, remember frequent visitors, and even respond with appropriate facial expressions. She has appeared on conference panels and other public venues throughout the world and has been interviewed by the New York Times.

Nadine, also from Hanson Robotics, is designed to be as lifelike as possible, from her appearance to the quality of her response, including hand gestures, eye tracking and appropriate contact, head movements, and more. Currently, she’s working as a customer service agent for the AIA Insurance Company in Singapore, the first time a robot has been used for this kind of work. Whether or not she’s entered into the Uncanny Valley remains to be seen.

Finally, since 2017, Pepper (yes, she is named after Gwyneth Paltrow’s character in Iron Man), from Softbanks of Japan, has worked as a receptionist at the media agency Brainlabs in Shoreditch. Pepper not only welcomes guests with a personalized greeting and informs staff when visitors arrive, she also performs basic tasks in the workplace like making tea and coffee. At about $32,000 (£26,000), and not needing sick days, vacation, raises, or healthcare, she’s also economical.

As far as the Olympics go, we don’t think Simone Biles has anything to worry about from Atlas… yet, but who knows what’s next? A robot doing a bars or beams routine, robot bouncers in our local bars, or should we look for a real-life Iron Man flying through the skies? Whatever the future holds, Boston Dynamics is showing us that the sky is absolutely the limit.