Boston Dynamics might be on the cutting edge of robot technology, but the Waltham-based company is at least as good at making viral videos.
If you’ve been online at any point in the last several months, you probably caught a glimpse of SpotMini, the disconcertingly doglike robot that Boston Dynamics plans to start selling next year. In one clip, a SpotMini uses a strange claw thingy that vaguely resembles a face to open a door for another robot. The second robot darts through the open door.
Each new Boston Dynamics video is met with a mix of amazement and not-entirely-sarcastic gallows humor: “Boston Dynamics’ updated SpotMini can open doors with a creepy back appendage,” a headline on the website Techspot reported. “Our days are numbered.”
And soon they’ll be for sale. Boston Dynamics will sell the robots, first for commercial uses like “security” and eventually to the public, company founder Marc Raibert said at a TechCrunch conference at the University of California, Berkeley, last week. No word on pricing, but surely only oligarchs and Bond villains will be able to afford them.
What could go wrong?
In a world that’s already pretty antsy about the pace of technological advancement, from Facebook’s privacy blunders to Google’s seemingly all-seeing eye, some look at Boston Dynamics’ latest creations and see prancing little murder machines straight out of post-apocalyptic science fiction.
Clearly, given the avalanche of response these videos get, there’s something terrifying about what Boston Dynamics is doing. But why? It turns out those reactions, informed by entertainment, might say more about us than they do about any looming Terminator-style robot armageddon.
“In other societies that have less dystopian sci-fi about robots, they have more positive attitudes about them,” said Kate Darling, an expert in robot ethics and a researcher at the MIT Media Lab, who came face-to-not-a-face with a SpotMini at a conference earlier this year.
“Science fiction and pop culture certainly have an influence on our willingness to personify these machines,” Darling said. “There’s also a deeper biological component. We’re hardwired to respond to these physically moving machines. We can’t help but project life on them.”
That’s why, when we see a Boston Dynamics video in which a person demonstrates a humanoid robot’s ability to balance and recover from a fall by beating it with a hockey stick, we feel sorry for the robot.
“Anyone else kinda feel bad for that robot?” a typical comment asked, even as we also think, “Melt it down into a cube and fire the cube into outer space forever.”
If the robots seem to come straight out of your sci-fi nightmares, that’s because they sort of do — but only because the science fiction is mirroring reality, not the other way around.
Boston Dynamics’ dog robots were the inspiration for a particularly disturbing episode of the anthology series “Black Mirror,” series creator Charlie Brooker said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. In the “Metalhead” episode, filmed in black and white and devoid of nearly all dialogue, robotic dogs prowl a post-apocalyptic landscape and shoot human survivors in the head, particularly those caught intruding on vast abandoned warehouses.
Brooker described the episode as Boston Dynamics videos crossed with the nearly wordless, incredibly bleak movie “All Is Lost,” in which Robert Redford wakes up to find that his sailboat is sinking in the middle of the ocean. As such, the “Black Mirror” episode is not exactly a happy romp.
“Metalhead” devotes no time to where the dogs came from or how they became agents of the apocalypse. The viewer is left to wonder whether they are controlled by some supervillain or simply taking some sort of inventory protection programming to its logical but unintended conclusion of murdering every human on earth (because how better to assure the safety of the warehouse?). Brooker didn’t respond to my e-mails seeking an interview about whether terrifying robots will one day kill us all; he probably gets a lot of those.
And so we fill in the backstory ourselves.
For example, in a photo from the exclusive Mars technology conference earlier this year, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — shaved head, dark glasses, weirdly buff now — strode alongside a SpotMini.
“Taking my new dog for a walk,” Bezos tweeted, mentioning the conference and Boston Dynamics.
Gaze upon this chilling image of our bleak technological future — and his new robot dog! Throw a few of these things in an Amazon warehouse, and you’re about 80 percent of the way to “Metalhead.”
Maybe that’s just the sci-fi talking, and this is all fine. But just in case, I reached out to the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots. It’s a real thing, which advocates for a ban on fully autonomous weapons.
The spokesman declined to comment.Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.