Have you ever wondered why the robots in science fiction movies inevitably rise up and slaughter humanity? All too often, it seems to boil down to “Robots are bad,” and so the Robot Apocalypse is inevitable just as soon as the robots get smart enough. Did Skynet really launch Judgment Day and build the Terminators for no reason other than it seemed like the thing to do? Did the Cylons have no other motivation for mass genocide than bad programming?
The video below might be a good clue as to why we’re all destined to be slaughtered when our smartphones, GPS devices, and DVRs achieve sentience. It may be that it’s just a bad idea to go around kicking dogs, whether robot or organic.
The video is from Boston Dynamics, a company owned by Google. Its most recent video shows off its robot “Spot,” an undeniably impressive piece of cybernetics. Spot makes its way through office hallways, navigates a staircase, and runs over uneven ground. That’s not easy stuff to program into a robot. But unfortunately for the people at Boston Dynamics, while their video is getting wide distribution, all anyone is talking about are two points where workers kick Spot (at about :23 and :28) to show how well it keeps its balance.
Spot’s ability to regain its equilibrium is technically impressive, but it’s also a little heartrending. The second kick is more violent than the first, and as Spot scrambles to stay upright, it doesn’t just look like a machine trying to keep its balance; it really looks like an animal cringing from a sudden attack. As Spot reels, you can almost see its bewilderment trying to understand what it did.
It’s odd that so many of us have that reaction, because up until that moment, Spot doesn’t seem to be the least bit sympathetic. Cute it ain’t; Spot doesn’t even have a head, never mind adorable doggy features like a wagging tail or big brown eyes. Frankly, it looks more like something that Skynet would have built to hunt down the last straggling members of the human resistance than a cute and cuddly companion. But as soon as that boot slams into Spot’s side and it starts scrambling for balance, the entire Internet lets out a collective “Awww…”
The Technology Chronicles blog at SFGate summed up the reactions of many with its headline, “Kicking a Dog, Even a Robot Dog, Just Seems So Wrong.” The fact that it was able to find several quotes on Reddit — which is often little more than a sewer of misogyny, racism, and sleazy upskirt shots — sympathizing with Spot is demonstrative of how broad that response is.
The Independent makes a good point that our empathy for a kick against a robot dog has much broader ethical implications, especially considering its ultimate applications:
But kicking is the least of what little Spot will eventually be expected to withstand. Boston Dynamics’ robots are being created to eventually work as packhorses and scouts for the army, in difficult terrain. If kicking the little robot excites our sympathies — what should we think about sending it off to war?
Boston Dynamics seems to have at least partly anticipated the reactions, although it may not have expected them to be quite so strong. The last frame seeks to reassure us: “No robots were harmed in the making of this video.” It seems perhaps a little too coy for the genuine sympathies that many people have already expressed.
What do you think? Is it wrong to kick a robot dog? Or is it just like hitting any other household appliance that’s not quite working the way it should?
As for myself, I would like to take this opportunity to say that I welcome our new robot overlords, and would never kick one.
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