Unfamiliar Territory: Why We Find Boston Dynamics' Robots So Unnerving

Creepy. Bizarre. Crazy. Scary. Over the past week, I've seen all of these words used to describe the incredible machines invented by Boston Dynamics, which was just this weekend acquired by search engine giant Google. Truth be told, I don't disagree with any of them. Although Boston Dynamics' inventions are undeniably impressive, I won't deny that they're particularly unnerving to look at. Something about the way they move, the way they sound, the way they simply are sets most people on edge.

The problem, I think, is that although they're based on elements from the natural world, they still feel entirely unfamiliar and completely unnatural. I'd like to examine why - why is it that the machines created by Boston Dynamics so unnerve us, yet other machines like Boxie- which, in hindsight, doesn't look any less unnatural - are perfectly fine?

Believe it or not, the problem is tied as much to how the robots look as it is to how they act. 

As human beings, when we see another autonomous creature or object, we immediately tend to ascribe a personality of some kind to it. So long as we're provided with the right behavioral cues, we'll basically form an attachment with just about anything.  This tendency is a far-reaching one, often going well beyond the actual capabilities of the target to think and feel; it is furthermore particularly pronounced in the case of human-robot relations.

This is something that's hard-wired into our minds; an evolutionary tendency that gives us the ability to separate things into 'objects' and 'agents.' Robots fly directly in the face of this inborn empathy. Though on some level we're aware they're still objects, the fact that they move and operate on their own makes us far more likely to attribute some autonomy or state of mind to them, even if they're little more than mindless machines. If the movements of these robots further appear 'natural' or 'humanlike,' we're more likely to empathize with them.

"Our entire civilization is built on empathy," explained University of Calgary scientist Ehud Sharlin to the New York Times. "Societies are built on the principle that other entities have emotions." 

In short, we'll display empathy where comfort and familiarity exist. But what happens when we can't empathize with another agent? What happens when something moves in an unusual enough fashion that it's clear - even to our lower brains - that it's not natural? 

Alarm bells start ringing. 

Therein lies the first problem with many of the machines created by Boston Dynamics. Robots such as BigDog and Cheetah very clearly display some sort of agency, but they feel only vaguely familiar in terms of shape, and how they move is almost entirely alien. Somehow, the fact that they exist in the range of 'almost-but-not-quite' makes them all the more unsettling.

Of course, how they look doesn't really help matters. It's pretty clear that these bots are built for function over form. While that's all well and good in the field of scientific robotics, it simply doesn't work elsewhere. Our tendency to form attachments with familiar agents extends just as much to appearance as it does to action, especially if a particular agent looks 'cute.'  

This is something else that researchers argue is hard-wired directly into the human brain; a nurturing drive responsible for both the Internet's love of puppies and kittens and the love of new parents for what essentially amounts to a screaming, noxious bag of flesh. If we see something that we perceive as adorable or attractive, we're far likelier to set aside whatever differences might exist and connect. Consequently, if we see something that looks intimidating or threatening, we'll probably want nothing to do with it. 

It's the same reason so many people are afraid of spiders - their appearance seems custom-tailored to get under our skin. 

I've no doubt that Boston Dynamics and Google have some great things in store for us with their machines, but unless they give them a significant makeover, there's no way most people would possibly want to work side-by-side with any of them. They just look too bloody weird.

This, more than anything, is why we design robots to look cute, familiar, and comforting. It's because these machines aren't going to go away. They aren't going to quietly vanish back into the realm of science fiction any time soon. Instead, they're going to be playing a larger and larger part in our day-to-day lives. They will work beside us. They will care for us. They will deliver our mail, drive our cars, and clean our streets. 

It'll be very difficult for them to do that if they're giving everybody nightmares.