Boston Dynamics sure got the technosphere’s attention with this year’s video Christmas card. The video features a female Santa on a sleigh being pulled by three of the Google subsidiary’s newest “Spot” quadrupedal robots. Introduced in February of this year, Spot is a smaller sibling to BigDog, first seen scrabbling up the hills of the uncanny valley in 2005.
The reaction to the video was fascinating (and typical for the company’s demos). Throughout the blogosphere and on social media, people used words and phrases like “terrifying,” “scary,” “spreading holiday fear,” and made references to the human-strafing evil Robot Santa from Futurama and humanity stepping ever-closer to some inevitable Terminator future. And as with most of Boston Dynamics’s videos, the comments quickly devolved into cries of robot cruelty (based on video tests of the robots’s stabilizers being demo’d by kicking them hard in their sides) and fears of the robots turning on their masters.
Maybe because I’ve built robots, written about robotics, and know something about the engineering involved in these robots — all reflexive Rise of the Machine fears aside — these are some pretty spectacular machines. Spot features a jaunty newly-designed walking gate (more horse than dog-inspired), and unlike BigDog, which is made for more heavy-duty outdoor applications, it is designed as an indoor/outdoor robot. Spot is also relatively lightweight, at 160 pounds compared to BigDog’s 250 lbs.
I have to admit, scenes of the kicking of these quadrupeds tug at my heart strings as much as the next meatbot. But that reaction is really something worth examining. As much as it may look like a four-legged biological creature being treated poorly, it is anything but. We would think nothing of kicking the tire of our car or doing some “percussive maintenance” on the side of a failing computer monitor. But a machine whose biomimicry is this uncanny can’t help but trigger our empathetic human “programming.” A more rational reaction should be one of awe and wonder, and admiration for the engineers who’ve created a machine so seemingly lifelike that it triggers real empathy on the part of its human observers.
I’m just glad that they resisted the temptation to have Atlas, their 6′ tall bipedal humanoid, driving the sleight in a Santa suit. They probably know that they’re going to have to ease humanity slowly into our inevitable robotic future. In the meantime, I say, as makers, we should not be afraid of our technology. We should look under its hood, learn how it works, and begin to make versions of our own, tasked to our own purposes.