Our Reactions to the Treatment of Robots


Most of us have seen employees of Boston Dynamics kicking their robots, and many of us instinctively react with horror. More recently I’ve watched my own robots being petted, applauded for their achievements, and yes, even kicked.

Why do people react the way they do when mechanical creations are treated as if they were people, pets, or worse? There are some very interesting things to learn about ourselves when considering the treatment of robots as subhuman. But it’s equally interesting to consider the ramifications of treating them as human.

The Boston Dynamics Syndrome

Shown here are two snapshots of Boston Dynamics robots taken from their videos about Spot and Atlas. Why do scenes like this create the empathic reactions they do? Two possible reasons come to mind. One is that the we anthropomorphize the human-shaped one, meaning we think of it as human. That’s easy to do since not only is it human-shaped but the video shows it carrying a box using human-like movements. The second snapshot perhaps evokes the strongest reactions in anyone who owns a dog, though its similarity to any four-legged animal will usually do.

Is it wrong for Boston Dynamics, or anyone else, to treat robots in this way? Being an electronic and mechanical wizard, you might have an emotional reaction and then catch yourself with the reminder that these machines aren’t conscious and don’t feel emotional pain. But it may be wrong for one very good reason.

The reason I’d consider it wrong has to do not with the person doing the kicking, but with the people watching. Let me explain that with an example. I was participating in an Arduino-day at a local hackerspace and was showing off my BB-8 droid, having it roll around among the visitors. In case you haven’t seen kids with BB-8, many react to it as if it’s a loved pet or a friend, usually delightedly shouting “BB-8!” on first glance. However, one little girl instead walked up to it, planted a foot on the side of BB-8’s ball and pushed. It looked exactly like the kick to Boston Dynamics’ robot shown above. I strongly suspect I’d be right in saying that she’d learned that behavior from those very videos.

So why is this wrong? After all, it’s just a ball containing a Bluetooth receiver, an Arduino, two H-bridge boards and some old drill motors. The IMU board wasn’t even connected up at the time so there was nothing even remotely akin to pain sensors.

But most any parent would stop the little girl and chastise her for her behavior. Why? Well, for one thing she was kicking someone’s hard work. But more importantly, this behavior could easily be transferred to kicking her pets or classmates too. So children watching adults abusing robots may teach them that it’s okay to do so to living beings, something surely to be discouraged.

Being Nice To Robots

The example of the little girl is the only violent one I’ve experienced with BB-8. However, other reactions have been just as interesting. Take for example this video from before BB-8 had even been painted.

At 0:21 you can hear one woman react with surprise at her feelings when she says “Oh my god! That little circle really makes it look human.”

BB-8 is full of circles
BB-8 is full of circles

One possible reason that BB-8 gets so much positive attention is that it’s full of circles. Studies both without fMRI and with fMRI have shown that objects with curved contours are liked more than objects with sharp contours, and that objects with sharp contours are liked less than objects that have a mix. A baby, for example, has a well-rounded face, whereas knives and claws have sharp shapes. Naturally there are brain mechanisms that can override this behavior — stove top burners tend to be circular, yet we fear touching them, sometimes due to past experiences in doing so.

During the demonstration of BB-8, I’d had a false start, requiring me to open it up and reposition some magnets. For this second run people were therefore rooting for it, which may have added to their enthusiasm on seeing it work. It’s also a three-fifth scale BB-8, around the size of a small child or medium-sized dog. That may also have helped with the elicited reactions.

Speaking as this BB-8’s maker, however, I don’t have quite that reaction with my BB-8. That’s perhaps because when I see it, I’m picturing the workings inside and focusing on puppeting it to give others a good experience. But I see nothing wrong in people’s reactions. I’ve felt the same for other people’s projects. And if we treat pets the way we do, why not go one step further and treat our animate creations in a similar way.

A Human Box

Inception object recognizer in a box
Inception object recognizer in a box

I’ve had another very recent similar experience with my object recognizer in a box, which for the event I’d called Obby. If you’re not familiar with it, check out this detailed Hackaday article. The event was a meetup for an Ottawa machine learning group wherein a number of us gave five-minute demos of projects we’d done or were working on.

I introduced it as Obby the object recognizer, perhaps giving everyone an anthropomorphic bias right away by naming it in that manner. During the five minutes, I had it do three recognitions. For each one, I’d point Obby’s camera at an object and pressed a button. Then, with the microphone held up to its speaker it said “I am thinking about what you showed me.”


We’d then all wait for ten seconds while it mulled over what it saw, after which it would correctly say “I saw a water bottle” or “cellphone” or “coffee mug.”

Immediately afterwards I’d hear enthusiastic cheering and applause from the roughly 70 audience members. I accompanied the applause with mock bowing by dipping the box a few times.

To quote Jenny, co-organizer of the event:

I personally cheered every time Obby was successful — it almost felt like Obby was a type of pet… you know how people react to puppies or dogs that have been trained to do cute things. It seemed like that.

Factors that could have contributed to this reaction could be the pet-like name I’d given it and also the ten second wait while the sympathetic audience hoped that it would successfully recognize the object. But mostly Obby may have been humanized by speaking in a human voice and doing a task that until recently had been something only humans did well, namely object recognition.

As the one who’d put Obby together, I was of course delighted with the reaction. It was both interesting and rewarding, if a little unexpected in magnitude.

The Next Robot

Eyeball balls
Eyeball balls

All this has made me second guess some decisions I’d made regarding my next robot. That one will have two moving eyes. Prior to my experience with the Obby demo, I’d planned on making the eyes as human as possible, one inch in diameter. But if people relate so easily to Obby in a box, I’ve gone back to considering using one and a quarter-inch balls or even bigger one and a half-inch ping-pong balls instead, given that they’re easier to work with.

I also fear putting people in the uncanny valley. That’s where people feel an eeriness or revulsion toward a robot which looks almost human but not quite. It does seem to be a real thing judging by your comments following this Hackaday article about a very human looking robot.

Which route do you think I should go: human or non-human? What sort of reactions have you witnessed, whether for humanoids or otherwise? We’re very interested in hearing about them so scroll down to the comments below and share your story.



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