Why Google’s Robot Dog Terrifies You

Arts, entertainment, and more.
Dec. 20 2013 9:03 AM

I, Frankenstein

The uncanny, human inhumanity of Boston Dynamics’ androids.

Boston Dynamics' BigDog robot.
Boston Dynamics' BigDog robot.

Courtesy Boston Dynamics

One of the strangest and most unsettling things I have seen on the Internet in quite a while—and like everyone else, I regularly see strange and unsettling things on the Internet—is a YouTube video called "Petman Tests Camo.” It begins with a figure walking in place on a treadmill. The figure is wearing a beige combat suit with black gloves and boots, its face covered by a gas mask, likewise black. There is a harness around its torso, by which it is connected to a metal frame surrounding the treadmill. There is something almost comical about its stride, precise yet ungainly.

And yet it isn’t comical at all; its dogged purposefulness is strangely horrifying. Never more so than when, about 15 seconds in—well, watch:

The video cuts to reveal a robot bearing a significant resemblance to C-3PO from Star Wars, still striding in place, but now without the clothing; then it cuts back to the figure suited again, crouching now, and doing a series of squats and arm movements.

Mark O'Connell Mark O'Connell

Mark O'Connell is Slate's books columnist and a staff writer for the Millions.

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The video is one of a series of similarly unnerving clips that have shown up on YouTube over the last few years, released by the robotics firm Boston Dynamics, which was bought by Google last week. Before the acquisition, the company was probably best known for the DARPA-funded BigDog project, a four-legged robot developed to serve as a high-tech pack mule for soldiers on rocky and hilly terrain. The robot is capable of running, climbing and carrying extremely heavy loads on its “back.” To me, though, it’s most noteworthy for the peculiar unease that comes from observing its movements. I’ve been keeping a nervous eye on Boston Dynamics and its doings ever since I came across a video of this unholy creature about a year ago. Just look at the thing, for God’s sake: Look at it skittering in blank panic over a patch of ice; look at it trotting jauntily across a factory floor, and picking its cautious way over a pile of cement blocks.

Why exactly am I so creeped out by these videos? These are, after all, only machines, assemblages of metals and plastics controlled by microchips; but observing them, I feel something close to the kind of revulsion I normally feel only for actual living creatures—cockroaches, say, or moths (the less said about which the better). And this is surely at the center of it: the fact that these machines seem so organic, so close to something that is alive. It’s as though they are performing a kind of grim parody of living things, an unsettling approximation of the movement and bearing of flesh-and-blood animals.

A concept that often gets brought to bear in discussions of this kind of unease is that of the uncanny valley—the theory that as approximations of human forms and behaviors (usually in robotics and 3-D animation) approach verisimilitude, people’s responses tend toward unease or revulsion. I’m not the only person who finds Boston Dynamics’ creations unnerving; if you read the comments on any of the videos, you’ll find a spectrum of variations on the theme of mortal terror. The Petman footage, for instance, has elicited the following responses in just the last few days: “We are doomed”; “I’m gonna have trouble sleeping”; “This thing freaks me out”; “Oh fuck we’re all gonna die”; and the more cool-headed “Please, stop. The world don’t needs all this crap.”

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