Our Reactions to the Treatment of Robots

Most of us have seen employees of Boston Dynamics kicking their robots, and many of us instinctively react with horror. More recently I’ve watched my own robots being petted, applauded for their achievements, and yes, even kicked.

Why do people react the way they do when mechanical creations are treated as if they were people, pets, or worse? There are some very interesting things to learn about ourselves when considering the treatment of robots as subhuman. But it’s equally interesting to consider the ramifications of treating them as human.

The Boston Dynamics Syndrome

Shown here are two snapshots of Boston Dynamics robots taken from their videos about Spot and Atlas. Why do scenes like this create the empathic reactions they do? Two possible reasons come to mind. One is that the we anthropomorphize the human-shaped one, meaning we think of it as human. That’s easy to do since not only is it human-shaped but the video shows it carrying a box using human-like movements. The second snapshot perhaps evokes the strongest reactions in anyone who owns a dog, though its similarity to any four-legged animal will usually do.

Is it wrong for Boston Dynamics, or anyone else, to treat robots in this way? Being an electronic and mechanical wizard, you might have an emotional reaction and then catch yourself with the reminder that these machines aren’t conscious and don’t feel emotional pain. But it may be wrong for one very good reason.

The reason I’d consider it wrong has to do not with the person doing the kicking, but with the people watching. Let me explain that with an example. I was participating in an Arduino-day at a local hackerspace and was showing off my BB-8 droid, having it roll around among the visitors. In case you haven’t seen kids with BB-8, many react to it as if it’s a loved pet or a friend, usually delightedly shouting “BB-8!” on first glance. However, one little girl instead walked up to it, planted a foot on the side of BB-8’s ball and pushed. It looked exactly like the kick to Boston Dynamics’ robot shown above. I strongly suspect I’d be right in saying that she’d learned that behavior from those very videos.

So why is this wrong? After all, it’s just a ball containing a Bluetooth receiver, an Arduino, two H-bridge boards and some old drill motors. The IMU board wasn’t even connected up at the time so there was nothing even remotely akin to pain sensors.

But most any parent would stop the little girl and chastise her for her behavior. Why? Well, for one thing she was kicking someone’s hard work. But more importantly, this behavior could easily be transferred to kicking her pets or classmates too. So children watching adults abusing robots may teach them that it’s okay to do so to living beings, something surely to be discouraged.

Being Nice To Robots

The example of the little girl is the only violent one I’ve experienced with BB-8. However, other reactions have been just as interesting. Take for example this video from before BB-8 had even been painted.

At 0:21 you can hear one woman react with surprise at her feelings when she says “Oh my god! That little circle really makes it look human.”

BB-8 is full of circles
BB-8 is full of circles

One possible reason that BB-8 gets so much positive attention is that it’s full of circles. Studies both without fMRI and with fMRI have shown that objects with curved contours are liked more than objects with sharp contours, and that objects with sharp contours are liked less than objects that have a mix. A baby, for example, has a well-rounded face, whereas knives and claws have sharp shapes. Naturally there are brain mechanisms that can override this behavior — stove top burners tend to be circular, yet we fear touching them, sometimes due to past experiences in doing so.

During the demonstration of BB-8, I’d had a false start, requiring me to open it up and reposition some magnets. For this second run people were therefore rooting for it, which may have added to their enthusiasm on seeing it work. It’s also a three-fifth scale BB-8, around the size of a small child or medium-sized dog. That may also have helped with the elicited reactions.

Speaking as this BB-8’s maker, however, I don’t have quite that reaction with my BB-8. That’s perhaps because when I see it, I’m picturing the workings inside and focusing on puppeting it to give others a good experience. But I see nothing wrong in people’s reactions. I’ve felt the same for other people’s projects. And if we treat pets the way we do, why not go one step further and treat our animate creations in a similar way.

A Human Box

Inception object recognizer in a box
Inception object recognizer in a box

I’ve had another very recent similar experience with my object recognizer in a box, which for the event I’d called Obby. If you’re not familiar with it, check out this detailed Hackaday article. The event was a meetup for an Ottawa machine learning group wherein a number of us gave five-minute demos of projects we’d done or were working on.

I introduced it as Obby the object recognizer, perhaps giving everyone an anthropomorphic bias right away by naming it in that manner. During the five minutes, I had it do three recognitions. For each one, I’d point Obby’s camera at an object and pressed a button. Then, with the microphone held up to its speaker it said “I am thinking about what you showed me.”

We’d then all wait for ten seconds while it mulled over what it saw, after which it would correctly say “I saw a water bottle” or “cellphone” or “coffee mug.”

Immediately afterwards I’d hear enthusiastic cheering and applause from the roughly 70 audience members. I accompanied the applause with mock bowing by dipping the box a few times.

To quote Jenny, co-organizer of the event:

I personally cheered every time Obby was successful — it almost felt like Obby was a type of pet… you know how people react to puppies or dogs that have been trained to do cute things. It seemed like that.

Factors that could have contributed to this reaction could be the pet-like name I’d given it and also the ten second wait while the sympathetic audience hoped that it would successfully recognize the object. But mostly Obby may have been humanized by speaking in a human voice and doing a task that until recently had been something only humans did well, namely object recognition.

As the one who’d put Obby together, I was of course delighted with the reaction. It was both interesting and rewarding, if a little unexpected in magnitude.

The Next Robot

Eyeball balls
Eyeball balls

All this has made me second guess some decisions I’d made regarding my next robot. That one will have two moving eyes. Prior to my experience with the Obby demo, I’d planned on making the eyes as human as possible, one inch in diameter. But if people relate so easily to Obby in a box, I’ve gone back to considering using one and a quarter-inch balls or even bigger one and a half-inch ping-pong balls instead, given that they’re easier to work with.

I also fear putting people in the uncanny valley. That’s where people feel an eeriness or revulsion toward a robot which looks almost human but not quite. It does seem to be a real thing judging by your comments following this Hackaday article about a very human looking robot.

Which route do you think I should go: human or non-human? What sort of reactions have you witnessed, whether for humanoids or otherwise? We’re very interested in hearing about them so scroll down to the comments below and share your story.

80 thoughts on “Our Reactions to the Treatment of Robots

    1. Except when it comes to sex robots. There’s a reason that even super realistic ones are still mostly creepy and not sexy. Maybe there are differences in how people respond to things they want to mate with versus interact with. In addition to general gender and possibly even cultural differences as well?

      1. “super realistic” puts the things right into the “uncanny valley”. Things that do clearly look artificial but behave and move like something living evoke the strongest emotional reactions. That’s why Pixar’s characters are so great. Look how many emotions they could show with just eyes and little gestures in “Wall-e”

      2. No. It’s not the purpose, it’s the uncanny valley. It’s “cute” to see something get more human like. Until.. it is too close. Then subconsciously we start seeing it not as a cute robot but as a deformed human or maybe a corpse. Our subconscious is trying to protecting us from disease.

        Imagine this… someone puts a strong AI into one of those sex robots and clothes it in regular, everyday clothing. Then they introduce you [not for sex, for a conversation]. I bet it’s still going to feel awkward and a little creepy isn’t it? It would actually be much more comfortable for most people to have a conversation with Johnny 5 wouldn’t it?

    2. I think most of us here, are some sort of repair or creative type of person, rather than a kicker of things.

      But compassion/empathy for a war machine???? vs some cute toy?

      I’m starting to understand, a little better, why it is that “companion robots” are being marketed as for people with dementia.

  1. I don’t find the videos of the Boston Dynamics machines to evoke any emotion because the kicking and pushing that they are being subjected to is for testing – if someone was going after those machines because they were angry then maybe I would feel more emotional about it. I see it as the difference between a person explicitly asking to be pushed against (maybe because of the sport they are playing) versus an innocent bystander being attacked by someone who was being aggressive. I would say the emotional context of the perpetrator to be important, not just a personal projection of life onto the ‘victim’ (a machine).

    1. Absolutely this. The real problem with people developing a callous attitude toward anthropomorphic machines is not how they’re treating the machines, but rather the path their on in their treatment of other humans. Someone who easily abuses a human-like robot will find it’s not much more difficult to abuse a (robot-like?) human.

      1. Yah, covered in boiling oil, with your ass over the fire, brutal, even psychopathic rulers saved that for the worst punishment for criminals, not as day in day out brutality.

    2. Boston Dynamics machines are big, tough, scary looking machines built for war. Their goal is to develop tools for use on a battlefield. To me comparing a video of someone kick-testing a Boston Dynamics robot to someone kicking somebody’s BB-8 clone is like comparing blowing up an army tank to mutilating some little girl’s dolly. I don’t even see the relevance.

      1. I wanted to leave the same reply… This is a tempest in a teapot type stuff and as a result I find the article reactionary and silly and formed of incorrect conclusions. Thanks for saying what needed t be said.

    3. It doesn’t matter what the machine is meant to do or how big/tough/scary it is, or if its even built for testing. Torture is torture. It may not matter now, but one we build strong AIs, it will. This is a valid conversation to start now and get us on the right foot as a race.

      Anyone watch Caprica? Anyone flinch when Daniel Greystone intentionally set the ceylon on fire because he suspected his daughter’s consciousness to be embedded in it and knew she was afraid of fire? That was a pivotal moment that caused the AI of the ceylons to become as hell-bent on humanity’s destruction as they were. Plus it was just cruel. We need to NOT do that. We need to NOT have videos of ourselves kicking prototypes for when the more evolved ones dig it up on the internet, same as we shouldn’t kick cavemen and monkeys.

      1. You need to look up the definition of torture. You can’t torture something that can’t feel pain.

        Do you also not agree with car companies crash testing their cars? What about self-driving cars? Do you also not agree with Battlebots?

        Testing a machine is not the same as kicking cavemen and monkeys for a number of reasons. The first, cavemen are extinct and can’t be kicked. The second, a monkey can feel pain while a robot cannot. The monkey also understands that someone kicking it is not good because it hurts. A robot would have no emotion towards being kicked because it can’t feel it. It doesn’t even know it is being kicked, just that a force is trying to move it in a way that it doesn’t want to move.

    1. I have just read the link. Looks too narrow minded but still points out some common features:
      Father was obsessed with motorcycles… He can tell people alsorts about many a model… recall entire lists of model and makes. He has even rode many and thus knows many common faults and what’ll likely go wrong on what frame/engine.
      Luckily for him, he was in the generation of people when all the hippies/modders/rockers/bikers were around… He fit in too well :)

      Fast forward some… Family issues, a schitzo partner, a breakup and his sons thrown in and out of the care system before finally settling for a while… I was one of those sons.
      I grew a fascination with electronics as a result of a smoke alarm what I could see the blinkenlights-of-activity etc within (OK one flashing because the silence button was pressed after it got lobbed across the hallway).

      Later on (about 5.5-ish years after settling with father), got kidnapped by police and thrown around various care-homes… saw some things a 7-year old shouldn’t (in care that is)… barely settled and then settled in a care-home who the only two (Married couple) carers discouraged anything any of the youngsters were into: Electronics – unhealthy obsession, Football – Unhealthy obsession, Maths – Unhealthy obsession, Computers – unhealthy obsession, Gaming – unhealthy obsession, Reading up on those things – Not healthy but at least their mouth is shut… TV – apparently that is the most healthiest option for a kid who just wanted to learn, help and socialize!

      All those things go against what is mentioned in the linked article, Problem is the care-workers were lied to and because of the situation they thought they had Hannibal Lector in the making on their hands… So they were frightened stiff of any “Obsession” that could “Lead to psychopathic tendencies”.

  2. I completely agree because I’m sick of fixing the robots after ignorant people break them and then say the machine was a lemon .
    This behavior isn’t new it’s been glorified in movies such as office space .
    If you can’t follow simple instructions a baseball bat will fix it mentality.

      1. Many things respond to it though. Car starter motors and fuel pumps (A half dozen times maybe, then you’re SOL) a netbook and a laptop where the SATA drive comes loose and if you drop it on it’s end it reconnects and the machine finds the HDD again… Old machines with a lot of cards in a backplane sometimes respond to a good slam….

        1. Hard disk drives have(had?) an oil on the platters tgat could gum up if left off too long. On startup, head was stuck to the platter. My boss called it a case of “sticktion”. Solution: remove drive and slap it. Hook it back up and it works. Prevention: Let computer run 24/7.

          Apple ][ computers needed to ave the chips pushed back in tight periodically.

          Ah, good old days!

  3. It is silly, but people constantly anthropomorphise this or that. It really isn’t a problem unless they are using their wealth and power to keep people with a clearer understanding of the world from doing things like testing the balance of a robot, or trying to fix a jammed joint.
    In medicine we constantly measured poison, often needles and knives, sometimes we even use hammers, saws and electrocutio; and that is on real humans.

  4. The uncanny valley is really easy to avoid, by avoiding it. Anthropomorphism will already guarantee you that one sphere and a half sphere plopped on top can be viewed immediately as something that is friendly and safe, safe enough for one viewer to plant a foot on and shove, so really the best way to create something that that can be viewed with subconscious affection is simply something that does not act creepy and does not look human.

    Slow enveloped movements, nothing too direct and definitely don’t make moving eyes, or if you do, put them behind something. Moving eyes turning to look at you in something synthetic LOOKS synthetic, so putting those eyes behind a sheet of something transparent literally puts something between the viewer and the synthetic eyes, subconsciously making the viewer feel safer and more receptive.

  5. Anyone interested in this kind of question should start off by reading the robot stories and novels by Isaac Asimov. They explore all the dilemma’s and moral questions about robots and their human “masters”. Strongly recommended: The Bicentennial Man and I, Robot (the books, NOT the movies!).

    And kicking a robot is so very wrong on so many levels it doesn’t even require discussion.

      1. And I’m sure you take pretty good care of that axe, right? I like to hand plane wood just to relax and I take better care of my planes than my own body. But taking it all out on an inanimate piece of lumber is not the same thing as kicking a robot. Or stabbing a teddy bear.

        1. The robot is a tool like a axe but more complicated and buggy. I can easily see someone taking a hammer to some robot out of frustration.

          People who overly anthropomorphize robots have issues. Maybe because they invest more time with them than dealing with other human beings. So they have transference issues with a hunk electronics. Maybe they need to get a real life pet and a social life..

  6. i see a lot of people, along with the author are hedging their bets for our robot overlords.. good thinking!
    I uh, think all objects, inanimate and otherwise should uh, receive full constitutional protections.. uh, yeah

    but really, yeah, don’t trash peoples stuff should be pretty basic, and in the youtube videos they are trashing their own stuff.

  7. I have a Star Wars Chopper and a Doctor Who K-9. I definitely have given them personalities and treat them as if they were the ‘real things’. I find it’s easier to keep the magic going in public if I interact with them as if they were /alive/ all the time.

    I like having two completely different droids. K-9 is dog shaped and gets treated like a beloved pet by most people that meet him. Chop is an Astromech and he’s treated like a person. Most people are respectful but there’s always a bad apple in the crowd. Thankfully Chopper is a jerk in the show so when I get ones like this I keep him in character and do whatever I want to the offending person.

  8. I read an articla some time ago about robot being abuse by children when there no adult nearby. And some boffins where studying how to add as a behaviour the search of adult by the robot to protect itself.
    So the little girl is maybe a normal child, she has not to see some video to act like this.

  9. I have enough of a problem with “wer’e sorry, the person has not set up their voice mail account” when I call someone. I and many others do not want it running. The interface cannot be sorry. There is no we, just the interface and me. I have a problem with the naming of, storms, diseases, and AI units or interfaces.

  10. This doesn’t really fit anywhere other than that this article reminded me of how I had to break myself of certain habits when I started using voice control via google with my phone. I used to say please and thank you, and it only confused the recognizer, I found it a little funny that I had to consciously stop using manners to get reliable results!

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  12. Oh, pleeeeeeeeeez….

    This could end badly, brainwashing sheeple to respect hardware as if it were human or even animal.

    What if robots are taxed into un-affordability, yet are provided by the government as an entitlement? Yes, Uncle Sugar-Daddy gives you your very-own North Korean concentration-camp guard to watch over, spy on and reward and punish you.

    What when governments resort to using robo-cops as Praetorians? They’re perfect, following orders to kill anyone inside or out of the regime, in any way. They will kill rioters with no hesitation, unlike soldiers or cops reluctant to fire on family or friends, children protesting hyperinflation or starvation, never disloyal because the government can’t/won’t pay promised pensions. Yes, robots are the tyrants wet dream.

    Who hasn’t been pestered by robo-calls that never take you off their list? There are several robots I would love to slowly torture to death, for years of harassment. Alas, that they had emotions for me to offend!

    Tools cut and hurt me all the time, computers often frustrate the hell out of me. Shall I not find justice and be avenged!

    Humans make machines. What mechanism or entity made humanity, animals and for that matter existence, how, for what purpose? You may think you know. Nothing I’ve heard is convincing or constitutes sufficient proof for me. I feel far greater moral latitude in destroying property that’s purpose and ownership is not in doubt.

    No; robots are robots, animals animal, and peoples iz people. Natural law demands one may need to punish, kill and/or destroy as necessity requires! You’d best train your kids how to destroy when the evil day requires, or you’d best train them to be slaves and live as livestock, either milk cows or meat cows for their masters.

    Liberty or death for man or machine!

  13. Sure a child even adults should be chastised if they go up and kick something that don’t belong to them Disrespect for the property of others shouldn’t be tolerated. Renumber the fate of Hackday’s Red Bull entry? The kid that kicked a robot because they seen it don on the demo videos should have been told they where testing the robot’s ability to balance. However if that same kid goes goes and kicks a robot again, and claims they where just testing it you may have a problem smart ass to deal with.

  14. People give names to cars, imagine faces on them, and get mad when kids kick them; They crash cars into walls during testing. This is all about context. Even the human, non-human thing depends on the application and even culture – think Japan here. This article feels to me like it’s trying to manufacture issues to discuss – sorry.

  15. I think it’s just the habit of doing something “safe”.
    Think about it:
    You interact with a machine that you know is capable of harming you. So you want to avoid and put your fragile little things called Fingers and Hand on it so it can not harm it.
    The Guy with the Hockeystick is fine for me. HE uses something to get DISTANCE between him and the machine (let’s just stick with the “machine” flag – Everything robot screams R2D2 and something alike).

    Of course you want to test stability like gyros and such – you need to move the object (machine) in place.
    You should use a stick as shown – or the “human logic” says that you can use your foot if you don’t have anything else.

    Of ccourse will children just copy what they see.
    They see a pet gets beaten -> They “can do that, too”.

  16. Check out the excellent book Robot Futures, by Illah Nourbakhsh, CMU Robotics Institute professor and HRI expert. There’s a chapter on how people are likely to treat robots and AI’s, and the implications for person-person and person-animal relationships. Nourbakhsh argues that people will begin to treat other people/animals less humanely as they are desensitized through their interactions with robots/AI’s.

    https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/robot-futures

    For some freely-available writing of his that gets closer to this subject:
    http://opentranscripts.org/transcript/the-automated-economy/
    https://www.ft.com/content/6cb943f4-12ac-11e6-91da-096d89bd2173?mhq5j=e6

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