Why Google’s Robot Dog Terrifies You

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Dec. 20 2013 9:03 AM

I, Frankenstein

The uncanny, human inhumanity of Boston Dynamics’ androids.

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Almost 200 years ago, Mary Shelley wrote insightfully in Frankenstein about the specific kinds of terror and revulsion that some of our own stranger technological creations can provoke in us. Before Victor Frankenstein’s monster gets all bent out of shape about being abandoned by his maker and starts killing people, what’s initially horrifying about the monster—who is, let’s remember, literally a creature of death, made from spare corpse parts—is his appearance. The reason Frankenstein flees from him after giving him life, and therefore the reason that the monster winds up going on a vengeful killing spree, is basically that he looks creepy as all hell. Frankenstein is filled with a “breathless horror and disgust” from the moment he sees his own creation:

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!—Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

The creepiness here comes from the almost-but-not-quite-lifelike appearance; it’s the “luxuriances”—the perfect teeth and lustrous hair and so on—that really horrify. Boston Dynamics is not in the luxuriance business, obviously, but there’s something of this terrible off-ness, this instinctually felt wrongness, to watching Petman’s dogged movements. It’s human, but also crucially other than human. The sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov used the term “Frankenstein Complex” to denote a fear of humanoid robots; it’s something like this, perhaps, that is at work in the typical reaction to Petman.

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But it’s not just ersatz humanity, but ersatz life that unsettles me so. I recoil no less violently from the sight of the nonhumanoid creations of Boston Dynamics. I am just as unsettled by something like BigDog, or the similarly unpleasant WildCat. More than the appearance of these creatures, it’s their motion that gets to me. WildCat, with its jointed limbs and its clunkily headless body, looks like a machine, but it moves like a creature. It’s the legs, now that I think of it, that specifically horrify; if this thing were on wheels, or if it hovered half a foot above ground level, I’d probably be more or less OK with it.

It seems plausible that this unease has something to do with a primal fear of predation—of being got by something, of being something’s prey. WildCat moves like a cheetah, or is intended to, but it unsettles in a way that looking at a film of a running animal never could. The fact that machines like BigDog and WildCat were developed with funding from the Pentagon’s research agency reinforces a sense of menace that is already inherent in their visual aspect. You don’t need to know that their intended application is, directly or otherwise, one of violence to feel a sense of the sinister emanating from them. We think we want our machines to be more alive, more lifelike. But there is something about WildCat’s uncanny dressage, about BigDog’s insectile scuttle, that encapsulates a certain kind of anxious ambivalence about technology—about where we might be taking it, where it might be taking us.

And so maybe it’s that merging of the familiar and the strange that accounts for how deeply unnerving these machines are. The fact that something so totally artificial—so obviously unnatural—appears so weirdly close to a natural form. I find this contradiction almost literally nightmarish: It’s the horrible spectacle of the object which is alive, or the living thing which is also an object. For Ernst Jentsch (who introduced the concept of the uncanny with his essay “On the Psychology of the Uncanny” in 1906), a major source of the phenomenon was an uncertainty of distinction between living beings and inanimate objects—“doubt,” as he puts it, “as to whether an apparently living being really is animate and, conversely, doubt as to whether a lifeless object may not in fact be animate.” He’s talking about things like waxwork models and scarecrows, but he also singles out “life-size machines that perform complicated tasks, blow trumpets, dance and so forth.” Toward the  end of the essay, he writes that “the horror which a dead body (especially a human one),  a death’s head, skeletons and similar things cause can also be explained to a great extent by the fact that thoughts of a latent animate state always lie so close to these things.”

Part of what’s so compellingly unsettling about Boston Dynamics’ menagerie of animated objects is this weird confusion between object and living thing, which is maybe just a sort of horrified realization of the sense in which living things—animals and people—are objects. Frankenstein’s monster is alive, but he (or it) is also a construction of parts, appendages, dead things. And so are we. That’s a brutally rationalistic way of seeing ourselves, but one that’s not untrue: We are all of us just objects, mechanisms of survival and reproduction, set up to remain animated for a time. Boston Dynamics’ creatures are like cruel, surreal techno-parodies of organic life, absurdist mockeries of living things. Maybe what’s so unnerving about watching Petman striding purposefully, pointlessly, on his treadmill isn’t the fear that he’s coming for us, but the fear that he is us, or that we are him.