What makes robots scary?


Halloween is approaching and it’s time to ponder: What’s scarier than a weaponized robot dog?

Here is a discussion of six scary things about scifi and real world robots. You can click on the image for the podcast, keep reading, or go directly to recommendations for my favorite scary science fiction robot books with enough science fact in them to be thought provoking along with other links. Trigger warning: some of the frightening things involve sexual violence.

So what makes robots overtly scary? Besides the standard scifi tropes that robot are going to have an uprising and kill us in our sleep?

Well, there are at least four ways robots come across as scary:

  1. Its Intentional function is to harm - robots may be designed to kill us

  2. Morphology- do they look like a scary insect or something that Sid in Toy Store would have created?

  3. It falls into the Uncanny Valley – there’s something ‘off’ about it

  4. Its behavior is untrustworthy – it doesn’t act predictably or follow expectations that we have for living things

But there is are two more subtle reasons to be scared of robots:

  1. Unintentional functionality – where the robots are buggy or have unintended negative consequences

  2. Enabling unethical acts - as in disturbing child-sized sexbots that emulate emotions, including pain and fear

Let’s start with creepy dog robots with guns. Weaponized robots, part of the whole AI/robotics set of applications called lethal autonomous weapon systems and abbreviated as LAWS, are scary because of their intentional function. They exist to kill us, ‘nuf said! My favorite scifi book in the LAWS genre is Kill Decision by Daniel Suarez about swarms of robots that suddenly appear and attack people or military bases. It accurately captures behavioral programming and that swarms of such systems would be cheap and untraceable to a government or terrorist group.

As Todd McAulty, a machine learning expert by day and author of books such as The Robots of Gotham by night once said about the question of robot uprising: "There’s really only one that matters: When the robots come, will they look like WALL-E, or Agent Smith?”

Kill Decision goes with “none of the above”-- the robots look like quadcopters that you can buy on Amazon, but are programmed to have the simple but relentless insect intelligence of a swarm of angry ants.

It’s not just the intentional function of a robot that can make it scary. Certainly morphology, the shape and appearance of the robot, plays a part. Some biomimetic robot shapes are just creepy, like the robot spiders that appear in Minority Report . To compound this, robots are often made of black graphite fiber, the black hides a multitude of manufacturing blemishes, but black armor is associated with menacing, aggressive behavior.

But humanoid, or other normally not frightening, shapes can be creepy if they enter the Uncanny Valley. The Uncanny Valley was originally proposed in 1979 by Masahiro Mori to describe a plot of how a human’s comfort level changed as a function ofrobot’s physical resemblance to a human or animal. The plot has a dip in the middle where robots that appear lifelike but do not have lifelike movements or mannerisms – and that disconnect elicits a negative emotion reaction of being creeped out. One way to enter the Uncanny Valley is to have some aspect of the appearance is disproportionately distorted or emphasized, Diego-san which has a very large head compared to its body is a poster child among roboticists. Another way of entering the Uncanny Valley is for a robot to have movements are slightly out of synch or not match expectations. A humanoid robot that is unnaturally still or doesn’t blink its eyes, like the Geminoid series, is creepy.

The way a robot moves and acts influences our trust in the robot. Jerky motions tell us to be alert, that the robot is clumsy, poorly programmed, or may not be able to sense the environment. We expect robots that move to behave the way humans or animals do, especially in term of personal space- the idea proxemics. If a robot enters our personal space but does not slow down, turn its volume down, and project that it is non-threatening, then our heart rate goes up and we get a fright. A dog that runs right at you full speed barking getting close enough to bite is pretty scary even if it stops and thrusts its head under your hand to get petted. A dog that approaches slowly with its head slightly down is less threatening and reassures that the dog is not in attack mode.

It’s hard to talk about scary robots without bringing up the science fiction trope of a robot revolution. Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse is probably the best techno-thriller combination of fiction and fact (and fun) in this category. In real life, there are no scientific studies that indicate that we are just inches away from the robots gaining sentience and taking over. Top roboticist Rod Brooks typically offers amusingly scathing summaries of why a robot revolution isn’t in the cards, no matter what pundits say.

Another science fiction trope is downloading your brain into a robot, which never ends well. We started seeing that with Forbidden Planet back in the 1950’s and it hasn’t got any better for the protagonists. My favorite so-bad-they’re-good movies in this genre are Saturn 3 and Eve of Destruction. The updated Demon Seed is a deliciously terrifying book (but the movie is awful). But this is another trope where there just isn’t the science to support this.

So science and science fiction has lots of reasons for us to be scared of robots: having an Intentional function to harm, hair-raising morphologies, the Uncanny Valley, and untrustworthy behavior.

But let’s not forget that buggy or poorly designed robots that exhibit unintentional functionality can be very scary as well. Recent advances in computer vision and machine learning have produced advances in having robots learn the wrong thing; <The Surprising Creativity of Digital Evolution has a list of unexpected things that real systems have learned when given incomplete goals and bounds. We could see this coming, starting with the 1960 scifi short story, Callahan and the Wheelies, where the robots learn that their creator is bad because he turns them off at night and so they start attacking him.

Indeed, the number one most frightening robot book that I have EVER read is Little Eyes by Samantha Schweblin. It’s terrifying because it is a totally feasible tale of how a company can make a teleoperated robot game and get away with ignoring the unintentional consequences of ruining people’s lives. Imagine a company creating a Furby-like robot doll on a mobile base. When a person, called a keeper, buys the robot, the toy is randomly paired over the Internet with an anonymous person, called a dweller, who has purchased an encrypted tablet controller. The game is for the dweller to amuse themselves by scooting around and figuring out what country they are in, what the dweller does for a living, etc. The game for the keeper is to interact with this thing that has a mind of its own.

What can go wrong? Lots. LOTS. My gut-wrenching favorite is where a pedophile buys a robot that is paired to a boy and follows him everywhere like a loyal dog. Follows him everywhere, watches him undress, and shower… you get the picture. And that’s just one horrible consequence. Little Eyes is also a great example of how laws and regulations lag technology; something gets invented and only after it is starts causing problems does anyone go “whoops!”

The European Union and robot ethicists are discussing robot regulations, but they generally are assuming that a robot has near-peer intelligence similar to the assumptions in Machinehood. But that misses the point that a robot doesn’t have to be as smart as a human to have profound unintentionally negative consequences.

I’m going with the direct impact on me and my family. In theory we’d be displaced to a better job, which seemed to be true in the 80s and 90s, but nowadays, maybe not. The Warehouse by Rob Hart takes a not-so-fictional look at warehouse robots and is another one of those too-close-to-home disturbing books. The warehouse and delivery robots are accurately portrayed as being fairly dumb. Unfortunately it also accurately portrays how dumb automation leads to humans having to work a 996 corporate lifestyle (9am to 9pm six days a week) plus overcome bad ergonomics and human-robot interaction schemes to keep up with the dumb robots.

The ambiguous economic consequences of robots may be frightening but another scary application is how they might encourage abusive behaviors. HBO’s Westworld (see my NPR Science Friday interview) and Ex Machina portray a future of abusive sex and destruction inflicted on highly attractive, sentient robots but in the here-and-now sex dolls are already one of the largest commercial investment sectors in autonomous robots. The sexbot for the protagonist’s aging widowed father in Made for Love is amusing with the whole “my dad has a sex doll?! Yuck!” thing. But the real-life child size sexbots that are being made and sold throughout the world are deeply disturbing. Do child-sized sex robots provide a safety valve to pedophiles or do they provide practice? No one knows and as the world experts on this, the Foundation for Responsible Robotics notes in Our Sexual Future with Robots , this is extremely hard to study.

Madeline Ashby’s vN, a book definitely NOT suitable for all ages, covers abusive robot sex from a robot’s point of view.

So it’s much more fun to imagine creepy alien robots coming to take over the Earth! (And if you like that sort of thing check out Robot Overlords, a terrible family movie with Sir Ben Kingsley and Gillian Anderson who should have known better- you should check it out and prepare to throw popcorn at the TV),

But it’s the actual robots that we are building and pushing out into society Right Now that are Really Scary.


RECOMMENDATIONS (links to purchase)

My favorite scary robot books with technical feasibility, that whole 20 minutes into the future vibe, AND are engrossing reads are:

My favorite not-so-scary bad robot movies:

Plus links to more Science Fiction/Science Fact readings by topics:

The pumpkin head robot image is from Robot Business Review.