Can Boston Dynamics ever shake its "killer robot" rep?
Humans naturally fear the unknown and unfamiliar.
And robots present us with precisely this: something non-human, performing tasks typically completed via human labor, or comparably simpler machines, made by us.
But there's no denying that robots will soon become a pervasive feature of everyday life on a larger horizon. This is why, when Boston Dynamics did a Super Bowl commercial promo with Samuel Adams — the beer label that's become synonymous with Boston — the advanced robotics firm decided to instill their suite of robots with a lot of personality.
At least, it looked like personality.
In answer to very public and reasonable concerns about the potential threat of "killer robots," Boston Dynamics showed the world a more relaxed version of their creations: robots who know how to party.
However, a robot that can be programmed to party is probably also a robot capable of doing a lot of harm. The question is raised: can Boston Dynamics ever shake its "killer robots" reputation?
Boston Dynamics' robots can tell you when you really shouldn't "text her"
The Super Bowl commercial opened with Spot the robot dog sharing a beer and even "burping" (off-screen, of course) to endear fellow Bostonians.
One robot, called "Stretch," dumped a case of beer into a cooler, while the bipedal (humanoid) robot "Atlas" joined Spot for a dance session. In the context of a party, this certainly looks endearing. Perhaps to shore up the interior of robot personality, Spot the robot dog even gave one inebriated man relationship advice, shaking its claw "no" when he asked Spot if he should "text her."
Avoiding drama is good, but does this mean Spot has been friend-zoned? What did that look like?
In the commercial, Boston Dynamics' robots were depicted as a security force you want to party with. But what happens when they're not down to party?
A wheeled robot might reduce its "footprint"
In 2017, footage surfaced of Boston Dynamics' robot Handle — the predecessor to the newest robot from the firm, Stretch — a two-legged and single-clawed robot on wheels. "Now everybody thinks we only do legged robots, so no one has seen this," said Founder Marc Raibert in 2017. "This is the debut presentation of what I think will be a nightmare-inducing robot if you're anything like me, but this is an experiment in combining wheels with legs with a very dynamic system that is balancing inside itself all the time and has a lot of knowledge of how to throw its weight around, which it uses to help stabilize itself."
Raibert added that this dynamic, wheeled system is far more efficient than a bipedal model. It "can carry a heavy load on a small footprint, and it's an exercise in seeing if we can do something like the humanoid that has [fewer] degrees of freedom but eventually could be less expensive and still have significant capability," he said.
"We call this Handle because it's supposed to handle objects eventually," added Raibert. And in curating the complex programming for the staged party, the Boston Dynamics team had lots of practice making this a reality.
Assuming the sale with a "frat bro" personality
It's revealed through the video that the consensus on how to make robots more affable is to give them the personality of a frat bro. To some, that's probably enough to set aside the skepticism on the ultimate safety of powerful robots carrying out programmed instructions with the mercy of a trash compactor.
But everyone knows that we aren't building robots out of a lack of party buddies. In the "making of" video, Boston Dynamics officials say Spot was "designed for industrial environments," but we've already seen police forces use the robot. More than once.
Stretch was designed to move boxes in warehouses, according to the video. But when it's deployed in factories across the country, many people might lose their jobs. But, on the other hand, if a natural disaster brings the roof down — like when an Amazon factory collapsed during a tornado, trapping 45 employees inside — it could save big corporations on liability.
Boston Dynamics' "killer robot" association might be unavoidable
Boston Dynamics said Atlas, the "humanoid" research and development platform, is used to "explore the art of the possible," which could mean anything. A sophisticated robot could direct traffic, serve drinks, and maybe even stop a drunk from doing something that threatens someone's livelihood.
Then again, if Atlas the robot can dance, it might also throw a punch with the velocity of a car speeding down a highway.
Who gives the orders here?
Unless artificial intelligence gives birth to genuinely synthetic consciousness, robots will remain much like any other tool. This means the question of calming worries about "killer robots" lies less with giving them the personality of a frat bro and more on trusting the ones who control them. It's about the programming, the programmers, and what they're told to program.
Everyone knows that parties are fun, but they're also where human personality is the most two-dimensional. Presumably, humans will continue to be complex, conscious beings with dreams, ambition, and a conscience. The sci-fi author Philip K. Dick once asked Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in a book later adapted into Blade Runner. And, for Boston Dynamic's rep, Dick's answer still seems apt: the more robots come to resemble us, the greater the possibility is that they might not like who we are and what we expect of them.
Correction: An earlier version of this article included inaccurate statements about the name of the robot, "Atlas," about which robot brought the keg to the party, and the release date of the Boston Dynamics "Handle" video. IE regrets these errors.