March 1, 2016
This week on The Digital Life, we discuss a world filled with robots and what this could mean for humanity as we adjust to another type of “being” in our midst. It’s coming sooner than we might think.
For instance, last week, Boston Dynamics, a Google company, released a video of their next generation Atlas robot, that shows it walking through the snowy woods, recovering from slips, and picking up a 10-pound box.
To demonstrate the robot’s resilience, a Boston Dynamics employee wielding a hockey stick pushes the robot backwards, knocks a box out of its hands, and even shoves it to the ground. The robot is able to recover each time and go back to work, but the unease of watching a near humanoid manage these abusive trials is palpable. The phenomenon, known as the Uncanny Valley, has long-term implications for collaborative robotics.
Atlas is this robot that’s about 5’9″, 180 pounds or so, and it looks frankly like a robot that you might see in that iRobot Will Smith movie from a few years ago. As I mentioned, it walks upright on two legs. It has a funny little gait, so it sort of looks like it’s picking up its knees a little bit higher than a human would when it’s walking, and the video is really amazing. It starts with Atlas in the lobby of Boston Dynamics, and Atlas is going for a walk, so the robot pushes open the door and heads out into the lovely snowy New England woods of the Boston Dynamics campus.
It’s walking along, picking its way over these logs and snow-covered leaves and generally doing a very good job of it. In these first few moments of the video, you notice that the robot is kind of slipping and righting itself as it does so, so the reality of the uneven ground, the natural surroundings where a human being would probably not have too much trouble walking, this robot is navigating it and doing so in a way that I found fairly amazing. I have a young son, and it kind of reminded me of the tentative walking of, not a toddler but slightly older than that.
Now this next part of the video I found a little bit … It made me a little bit uneasy, and it was the part where Atlas is demoing what it can do in the warehouse. So it’s picking up boxes and putting them on shelves, which I think are … It’s a fairly common task in the warehouse, but then there’s also this moment where it’s trying to pick up a box, and there’s a Boston Dynamics employee and he comes over and he knocks the box out of its hand very deliberately with a hockey stick. Then Atlas goes and tries to pick up the box again and then he sort of knocks it out. Then later on the in the video, the same employee pushes Atlas down very roughly so the robot falls to the floor, and then after a moment, it sort of pushes off on its arms and comes back upright as if nothing had happened and it’s ready to go back to work.
The unease that I felt of this humanoid-like robot that was … If this was a human being being abused with a hockey stick, you’d feel rotten about what was happening. This is called … The phenomenon is called the Uncanny Valley, which is essentially … I had not experienced that sensation previously to such an extent, like it seemed cruel to be treating the robot in this manner, and I realized all of a sudden that I was ascribing human characteristics to this humanoid robot, which then made me think, if there were a bunch of these things around, they may not be beings in the sense, you know, using the air quotes, but it sure as heck felt that way.
Watching this video was one of the first times if not the first time that I really got that sensation of unease known as The Uncanny Valley. That is an ongoing design question for those who are designing the experience of the robotics industry, because how close do you make these things to human-like if we’re going to ascribe human … The robot doesn’t have feelings. The robot doesn’t care that it got pushed to the ground with a hockey stick, but I cared.
My reactions actually, now that you’ve spoken through the whole thing, were pretty similar to yours. On the technology side, the technology was impressive. It was still clumsy. It’s not moving like a human. It’s herky-jerky, but being able to navigate snowy woodland terrain and do some of the other things that it did were pretty cool. What I took away from the video was real, real discomfort. Real disgust, I would say, even, at how the robot was treated by the employee there. You mentioned that the hockey stick was taken, and the hockey stick was sort of violently knocking the box out. As you mentioned, the shoving down was really … It was like a hockey check. It was like, bam! This man, this big man, really hammered down this robot with violence and animus.
I was appalled, to be honest with you. I was completely appalled, because the point of doing these things was to show that the robot technology has developed to a point that it’s not just this script where, walk forward, pick up this box, and do the next step. It’s walk forward, pick up this box, something goes wrong and you need to pick up the box again, and the robot is doing that properly. That’s what that experiment was designed to show. But the human individual could have come over, put their hands on the top and bottom of the box, pulled it out of the robot’s grasp and put it on the ground. They didn’t need to take a hockey stick and hammer it down with violence and negativity. To show the robot being able to stand back up, they didn’t need to body check it down with this male aggression.
So I was completely appalled and I think it’s really a troubling example of how people are conditioned to behave toward technology and the more human that that technology is, either in appearance and or behavior, the more that that shifts from something that is sort of tolerated because the technology’s just a dumb big plastic box into something that is really, truly, and certainly is an ugly expression of the worst of humanity.
On our last episode, Jon, at the end of it I was kind of dismissively saying we’re filthy animals, and this was a great example of it. It was a great example of how, at the end of the day, we are filthy animals behaving badly and I shudder to think that we’re going to be in a world with robots intermingled with ourselves and we’re going to treat the robots in the way that this jackass at Boston Dynamics was treating the robot. I don’t know. I was very troubled, and what I took away from their concept video, which was supposed to be a celebration of the capability of this robot, was the deplorable behavior of this individual on their design team.
So you kind of wonder if, number one, the bipedal robots, just because of the Uncanny Valley, if that will be too much to surmount, that we’ll ascribe human characteristics, we’ll have People for the Ethical Treatment of Robots and we won’t be able to advance with this technology because it’s just too close to our own interpretations of human behavior. Or if we’ll go to things that look less like creatures and more like outer-worldly things that do the same kind of tasks but do it with arms and wheels and less human-like representations.
There’s so many possibilities of the future, what different robots will look like, or how they’ll manifest writ large, but I think that at the end of the day, people will be treating them well just as a natural byproduct of our continuing evolution forward.