You’ve probably already seen the video on social media. It’s an accomplished “parody” of clips published by engineering company Boston Dynamics, showing a CGI replica of the firm’s Atlas robot getting kicked, hit, and shot at, before turning the tables on its captors.
Maybe you saw the video and initially thought it was real. Maybe you even felt bad for the robot and angry at its tormentors. “Why are they hurting that poor machine?” asked many. “Sure, it can’t feel anything, but that doesn’t mean they can treat it like that.”
It’s a totally understandable reaction! But it’s also one that shows how much trouble we’re going to be in when robots like Atlas become a common sight on our streets.
Are machines really deserving of empathy? Do we need to worry about people fighting for robot rights? These are big questions that are only going to become more relevant.
First, though, a little side-bar on why so many people were taken in by this clip. Praise here goes to the creators, an LA production company named Corridor Digital, who did a slick job. The CGI is solid, the set dressing is on-point, and the target is well chosen. Boston Dynamics really does stress-test its robots by kicking and poking at them with sticks, and this has long made for slightly uncomfortable viewing. Helping the footage go viral is the fact that many accounts shared low-res versions of the video (which disguised the CGI) or trimmed the fantastical ending, where the robot is ordering humans about at gun-point.
In short: if you thought the video was real, don’t kick yourself. Because that would be actual cruelty, as opposed to the fake, robot-kind.
But that brings us to the important question here: is it okay to hurt robots? The obvious answer is: yes, of course. Robots aren’t conscious and can’t feel pain, so you’re never hurting them; you’re just breaking them. You may as well feel sorry for the next plate you drop on the floor, or advocate for the rights of cars being torn apart for scrap.
But despite this obvious reading, humans do feel sorry for robots — all the time. Numerous studies show that it’s laughably easy to make humans treat robots like humans. We feel bad turning them off if they ask us not to; we obey their orders if they’re presented to us as authority figures; and we get uncomfortable touching their ‘private parts.’
This isn’t really a surprise. Humans will feel empathy for just about anything if you put a face on it. As MIT researcher and robot ethicist Kate Darling puts it: “We’re biologically hardwired to project intent and life onto any movement in our physical space that seems autonomous to us. So people will treat all sorts of robots like they’re alive.”
The tricky thing is, how do we use this power? There are going be benefits for sure. Think of robots like Paro the baby harp seal that can help the elderly stop feeling lonely. But what about corporations that take advantage of our empathy; designing cheery AI assistants that win the hearts of children while teasing out some valuable marketing data, for example. And that’s before you start thinking about the mobile robots that are being deployed in supermarkets, on our streets, and that may soon be coming to our houses.
In other words: the future of robot empathy is going to be a mess. Be glad we’re just dealing with the CGI parodies for now.