Dirk Knemeyer

The Digital Life #145: Robot World

Episode Summary

This week on The Digital Life, we discuss a world filled with robots and what this could mean for humanity as we adjust to another type of “being” in our midst. It’s coming sooner than we might think.

For instance, last week, Boston Dynamics, a Google company, released a video of their next generation Atlas robot, that shows it walking through the snowy woods, recovering from slips, and picking up a 10-pound box.

To demonstrate the robot’s resilience, a Boston Dynamics employee wielding a hockey stick pushes the robot backwards, knocks a box out of its hands, and even shoves it to the ground. The robot is able to recover each time and go back to work, but the unease of watching a near humanoid manage these abusive trials is palpable. The phenomenon, known as the Uncanny Valley, has long-term implications for collaborative robotics.

Jon:
Welcome to episode 145 of The Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and cohost Dirk Knemeyer.

Dirk:
Hi there, Jon.

Jon:
For our podcast this week, Dirk, I’d like to discuss the potential for a world filled with robots and what this means for people and for design, generally speaking.

Dirk:
Isn’t it already a world filled with robots? Aren’t we already there?

Jon:
We are there to an extent, if you’re in the manufacturing biz, for certain, and there are all kinds of robots in the warehouse area as well.

Dirk:
I remember in the mid 1980s, Jon, my grandfather gave me an electronic chess set, and I could set the level and it would play against me. Now, there was no being sitting on the other side of the table, but the little lights would show me what moves to make. Isn’t that a robot?

Jon:
I would think so, in a sort of classic, general definition.

Dirk:
We’ve got a lot of those, I think. We’ve got a lot of those around these days.

Jon:
Sure. There’s plenty of robots of different stripe. I think, for me, the revelation that I had while watching Boston Dynamics’ recent demo of their latest bipedal robot, which is called Atlas. It’s their Version 2. You can go on YouTube and find this video demo of this robot doing things like walking through the woods or working in a warehouse. The revelation that I had was that there were going to be these bipedal collaborative robots that might be more present, say, than the chess robot that you referred to. So, something that is more evident in my everyday life than, say, in the outer reaches or very specific applications like you suggested. What was your impression of the Boston Dynamics demo there?

Dirk:
My impression is complicated, so I actually want to start with your impression because I think yours is more what more people would have felt and would expect. So first share your impression. Talk about the video a little more and talk about what you thought of it, and then we’ll circle back to me.

Jon:
All right, fair enough. Just to be clear, I want to describe a little bit more what’s on the video, and of course we’ll put a link up on our website so listeners, you can go and view it as well if you already haven’t seen it.

Atlas is this robot that’s about 5’9″, 180 pounds or so, and it looks frankly like a robot that you might see in that iRobot Will Smith movie from a few years ago. As I mentioned, it walks upright on two legs. It has a funny little gait, so it sort of looks like it’s picking up its knees a little bit higher than a human would when it’s walking, and the video is really amazing. It starts with Atlas in the lobby of Boston Dynamics, and Atlas is going for a walk, so the robot pushes open the door and heads out into the lovely snowy New England woods of the Boston Dynamics campus.

It’s walking along, picking its way over these logs and snow-covered leaves and generally doing a very good job of it. In these first few moments of the video, you notice that the robot is kind of slipping and righting itself as it does so, so the reality of the uneven ground, the natural surroundings where a human being would probably not have too much trouble walking, this robot is navigating it and doing so in a way that I found fairly amazing. I have a young son, and it kind of reminded me of the tentative walking of, not a toddler but slightly older than that.

Now this next part of the video I found a little bit … It made me a little bit uneasy, and it was the part where Atlas is demoing what it can do in the warehouse. So it’s picking up boxes and putting them on shelves, which I think are … It’s a fairly common task in the warehouse, but then there’s also this moment where it’s trying to pick up a box, and there’s a Boston Dynamics employee and he comes over and he knocks the box out of its hand very deliberately with a hockey stick. Then Atlas goes and tries to pick up the box again and then he sort of knocks it out. Then later on the in the video, the same employee pushes Atlas down very roughly so the robot falls to the floor, and then after a moment, it sort of pushes off on its arms and comes back upright as if nothing had happened and it’s ready to go back to work.

The unease that I felt of this humanoid-like robot that was … If this was a human being being abused with a hockey stick, you’d feel rotten about what was happening. This is called … The phenomenon is called the Uncanny Valley, which is essentially … I had not experienced that sensation previously to such an extent, like it seemed cruel to be treating the robot in this manner, and I realized all of a sudden that I was ascribing human characteristics to this humanoid robot, which then made me think, if there were a bunch of these things around, they may not be beings in the sense, you know, using the air quotes, but it sure as heck felt that way.

Watching this video was one of the first times if not the first time that I really got that sensation of unease known as The Uncanny Valley. That is an ongoing design question for those who are designing the experience of the robotics industry, because how close do you make these things to human-like if we’re going to ascribe human … The robot doesn’t have feelings. The robot doesn’t care that it got pushed to the ground with a hockey stick, but I cared.

Dirk:
You don’t know what the robot’s programming is. You don’t know how … may or may not have quote-unquote “felt” whatever feeling means in a certain way those things being done to it.

Jon:
Sure. So this engendered in me a certain reaction which made me imagine downtown Boston filled with robots doing a variety of tasks to help people out, whether it was help them from their automated cars or … oh, I don’t know, assist in bringing packages into buildings. I just had this flash of Boston ten years from now, and I think that was something that made me think twice about what a robot-human society would look like. So there’s my initial reaction, Dirk. What’s your takeaway?

Dirk:
Well Jon, you totally came full circle, because at the start of this recording, you talked about with enthusiasm, how you can see the path to this world of these bipedal robots all around us, and then you reacted to the things that were happening in that video in ways that would suggest that it might not be bipedal robots, or it might not be so fast that this is happening. You kind of went full circle there.

My reactions actually, now that you’ve spoken through the whole thing, were pretty similar to yours. On the technology side, the technology was impressive. It was still clumsy. It’s not moving like a human. It’s herky-jerky, but being able to navigate snowy woodland terrain and do some of the other things that it did were pretty cool. What I took away from the video was real, real discomfort. Real disgust, I would say, even, at how the robot was treated by the employee there. You mentioned that the hockey stick was taken, and the hockey stick was sort of violently knocking the box out. As you mentioned, the shoving down was really … It was like a hockey check. It was like, bam! This man, this big man, really hammered down this robot with violence and animus.

I was appalled, to be honest with you. I was completely appalled, because the point of doing these things was to show that the robot technology has developed to a point that it’s not just this script where, walk forward, pick up this box, and do the next step. It’s walk forward, pick up this box, something goes wrong and you need to pick up the box again, and the robot is doing that properly. That’s what that experiment was designed to show. But the human individual could have come over, put their hands on the top and bottom of the box, pulled it out of the robot’s grasp and put it on the ground. They didn’t need to take a hockey stick and hammer it down with violence and negativity. To show the robot being able to stand back up, they didn’t need to body check it down with this male aggression.

So I was completely appalled and I think it’s really a troubling example of how people are conditioned to behave toward technology and the more human that that technology is, either in appearance and or behavior, the more that that shifts from something that is sort of tolerated because the technology’s just a dumb big plastic box into something that is really, truly, and certainly is an ugly expression of the worst of humanity.

On our last episode, Jon, at the end of it I was kind of dismissively saying we’re filthy animals, and this was a great example of it. It was a great example of how, at the end of the day, we are filthy animals behaving badly and I shudder to think that we’re going to be in a world with robots intermingled with ourselves and we’re going to treat the robots in the way that this jackass at Boston Dynamics was treating the robot. I don’t know. I was very troubled, and what I took away from their concept video, which was supposed to be a celebration of the capability of this robot, was the deplorable behavior of this individual on their design team.
Jon:
I don’t know if my reaction is quite that strong, but I get what you’re saying. What’s funny is, because of, as you said, this is supposed to be a celebration of the technology, I did feel like hey, this is pretty amazing what they can do. But at the same time, I kind of wondered why they demo was set up that way.

Dirk:
They didn’t think about it is why. They took for granted that that’s what you do. Maybe they thought it was funny, but there was no respect. There was not humanity. It felt like male locker room bullshit writ large in a public, marketing corporate context. I would think that robots are probably one of the few areas where this would still be acceptable. If it was something that was aggressive and stuff with a woman at the center, it would be totally unacceptable. Something aggressive with a racial minority, totally unacceptable. But here, we still have these little corners where it’s okay for boys to be boys and be stupid. I think it’s just thoughtless. It’s just people being themselves, their natural extension of how people behave in these situations, and not for a second thinking it’s wrong. Boston Dynamics publishes this thing and is beating the drum and is excited about it. In the process, I think it makes them look pretty stupid.

Jon:
I think there’s … There’s an interesting question if you consider the way humanity’s understanding of animal life has evolved over time. The most well-known group of course is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, right, so to expand upon your question there if it were a woman or a child or whatever getting hit with a hockey stick …

Dirk:
Or a dog or a cat.

Jon:
This is where I’m going with this. Right.

Dirk:
Exactly. It’s a clever analogy.

Jon:
Because, okay, so you’re like, of course you wouldn’t do that to another human being. That’s unacceptable for most of us. You follow on with, well, if someone had shoved their dog to the ground with a hockey stick, would you be okay with that? Probably not. I don’t know if you would interfere with that, but at the same time you probably wouldn’t think much of the person who did that. You’d say, okay, dog owners who love their dogs, even when they’re disciplining them, I don’t know if that’s the way they treat them or not.

So you kind of wonder if, number one, the bipedal robots, just because of the Uncanny Valley, if that will be too much to surmount, that we’ll ascribe human characteristics, we’ll have People for the Ethical Treatment of Robots and we won’t be able to advance with this technology because it’s just too close to our own interpretations of human behavior. Or if we’ll go to things that look less like creatures and more like outer-worldly things that do the same kind of tasks but do it with arms and wheels and less human-like representations.

Dirk:
I think people will figure it out with the human representations just like they’ve figured it out with dealing better with women and racial minorities. Certainly not that everyone does all the time, to be sure, but certainly in a public forum, in companies, in restaurants, in places where societies come together, the bad behavior is largely eliminated now. I think it will be the same with robots as well. It represents a continuing evolution of us as animals to treat things better, to not have expressions of rage, anger, disrespect, violence. Those are things that are part of our less evolved selves. Those are part of the Stone Age human, and as we become increasingly a different manifestation of humanity in a context that is wildly different, our behaviors will similarly come to be much more admirable, I think.

There’s so many possibilities of the future, what different robots will look like, or how they’ll manifest writ large, but I think that at the end of the day, people will be treating them well just as a natural byproduct of our continuing evolution forward.

Jon:
Yeah, that’s a great take on it, Dirk. Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to this show, you can follow along with the things we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L in the digital life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward, if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett, that’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T, and of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-0-I-N-V-O.COM. Dirk?

Dirk:
You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R, e-mail me dirk@goinvo.com.

Jon:
So that’s it for episode 145 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.

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