Robots Are Clumsy, Incompetent, and Stupid, and It's Time We Admitted It

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 4 2013 1:40 PM

Robots Are Clumsy, Incompetent, and Stupid, and It's Time We Admitted It

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

There's a new robot video out, and the tech press is swooning as always. "Whoa!" whoops IEEE Spectrum. WebProNews calls it "a galloping terror." It will "chase you down and haunt your dreams," Business Insider shudders. Gizmag calls it "incredible" and a "terrifying glimpse into the future." Slashgear's take: "If the folks at Boston Dynamics didn’t terrify your most base instincts to flee from the oncoming robot armies of your nightmares yet, they’re about to now."

Look, I get it: We all like robots, or the idea of them anyway. I've been known to hyperbolize about them a time or two myself.

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But can we be honest for a moment? The contraption in the video above is a noisy, clumsy, steaming pile of junk. It sounds like a malfunctioning Weed Whacker from the 1970s. Sure, it may represent an incremental advance over previous quadripedal robots. But that doesn't change the fact that it is essentially worthless for any conceivable task other than careening around for a few minutes while being filmed for a YouTube clip.

"Now imagine this speeding across a hostile area carrying supplies on its back for the troops," suggests Geek.com. OK, I'm imagining it. And now I'm imagining the hostile troops asking one another what the heck is making that infernal racket, and then chasing it down and knocking out of commission with one good boot to the flank. And then laughing.

Did I mention that the top speed of the Wildcat is 16 miles per hour? The top speed of a beagle is 25.

This is not to take anything away from the engineers who built the Wildcat. It's an impressive technological achievement in the field, I'm sure. This is just to say that building robots that can function in human environments is clearly a lot harder than the fawning tech press would have us believe. Treating barely-functional prototypes as though they herald an imminent rise of the intelligent machines is not just fatuous. It fundamentally misleads the public as to the state of robotics and foments breathless technophillia and needless technophobia in equal measure. If you want a terrifying glimpse into the future, imagine a world in which people are actually forced to rely on devices like the Wildcat for something other than mild amusement. Or, better yet, revisit the classic footage below of robots attempting to play soccer.

Previous incompetent-robot coverage on Slate:

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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