The ostensible purpose of Atlas is disaster response. As you can see in the video, Atlas has no problem walking over rough terrain, and the robotic hands that it’s equipped with are some of most dexterous and flexible hands that money can buy. (Read more about the iRobot and Sandia robot hands.) Hopefully, Atlas will be able to wade into dangerous disaster zones and save human lives.
It is hard to ignore the fact that Atlas looks like a Terminator, though. Given that its canine predecessor, BigDog, will soon join the US Marines, it seems inevitable that Atlas will eventually find its way to the battlefield. When that happens, the US will be able to field robot soldiers that are stronger, more resilient, and probably more accurate with their weapons than their human counterparts. At first, as with today’s UAVs, Atlas soldiers will probably be operated by humans situated safely in a bunker back home — but as their software improves, autonomous robot soldiers are not out of the question.