June 2021
Alan Dean Foster

American Robot

Why is a dancing machine so weird?

As I write this, the video of a rave of robots from Boston Dynamics dancing to the song “Do You Love Me?” by The Contours has over thirty million views. Knowing that readers of 5enses are sophisticated, cultured, and deeply interested in the future, I am sure all of you if not most of you have already seen it. Probably several times. It’s addictive. 

Why? Because outside its supernal coolness, it humanizes a technological development that gives many people a mental hissy-fit. To wit, the notion that one day in the now not-so-far future, humanoid robots will take over the world (unless Pinky and the Brain beat them to it).

For years, engineers and technicians have been working hard to fashion robots that look like us. In contrast, the really practical robots we have built look nothing like humans. Most are little more than mechanical arms terminating in a variety of tools designed to complete one task and one task only, over and over and over. Industrial robots do not get tired, don’t require lunch or potty breaks, can work around the clock and, perhaps most important to certain companies, are in no danger of unionizing. They are the perfect workers: silent, efficient, incredibly precise, and utterly lacking in anything resembling a retirement plan. Watching them hard at work, many don’t even think of them as robots. They're just repetitive, mindless tools, no different from a power drill, bandsaw, or certain Congressmen.

But humanoid robots, even though on the inside they are little different from those automatic welders and lifters and cutters and paint sprayers, have always had a tendency to unsettle people. Blame it on the movies, where most robots seem to have an irresistible desire to burst through walls, assassinate innocents, reject their programming, and occasionally carry off that C-level actress who won Miss Pork Pie Topeka 2020 and whose acting skills barely come up to the level of the machine hefting her, but whose exterior is of a different and usually more interesting configuration altogether.

To reiterate once and for all, robots that look like us are no different from those that polish toasters prior to final packaging. They can only operate according to their programming, right? Except, as demonstrated by the Boston Dynamics robot dog Spot (who, interestingly, has no spots), they are now for the first time capable of making their own rudimentary decisions. Program Spot to run into a wall and Spot’s internal decision-making capabilities will allow him (it? her?) to avoid the collision. That’s an impressive step in the development of robot AI. Maybe not as impressive as a pair of humanoid robots doing the funky chicken, but the latter example is wholly pre-programmed. There’s no independent decision-making involved. When a humanoid robot competes on Dancing with the Stars to its own self-generated choreography, then maybe it’ll be time to be a little twitchy (“I’m sorry, sir, but your moves are entirely too stiff and mechanical”). Subsequent to which the irate robot vaporizes the judges (no, wait ...).

Blame it on the movies.

See how easy it is to lose oneself in contemplation of an entertaining if unlikely near future? I don’t worry about robots. What I do occasionally worry about is inimical programming. Right now there is nothing like Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (look ‘em up) because there is no need for them, nor does there currently exist any robot that would need to be governed by their strictures.

The future, now — I can’t predict what artificial intelligence or AI programming will be like in a hundred years. Nobody can. Keep in mind that eighty years ago a video of dancing robots existed solely in the realm of science-fiction. For that matter, video existed solely in the realm of science-fiction. Not to mention having a home computer or phone capable of viewing it. That’s how fast technology is changing.

Simple robotic devices now clean our homes, our hotels, work in hospitals, do limited driving of our cars, make decisions for aircraft (mostly but not always good ones, sadly), explore the oceans, and drive around semi-independently on Mars. None is humanoid in shape. There is no reason why they could not be, except that it is not practical. Remember the animated TV show The Jetsons? The cartoon family had a robot maid who vacuumed and did housework. Today you can buy a robot to do the vacuuming, but it doesn’t look anything like the Jetsons’ loquacious Rosie. Just as all those robots working in auto plants look nothing like the Terminator. Or your Uncle Sylvester from Philly.

If and when we do get commercial-grade humanoid robots, they will have to be programmed. It is conceivable that such machines could be programmed by evil technicians to carry out malicious tasks. We will need some kind of fail-safe built into every robot so that unstable Ted Suburban can’t program his new household model to go strangle his noisy neighbor. Or his barking dog (pace, Spot). Of course, Ted will also program his own household robot to defend him, as supported by the NRA (National Robot Association).We will need new laws, maybe new courts, and perhaps eventually a robot Bill of Rights.

For now, though, I’m happy to watch them dance to “Do You Love Me” on the official Boston Dynamics video. Not so much the fan video that overlays Flight of the Conchords’ “The Humans are Dead” on the same imagery.

I have to admit that one is a teensy bit unnerving.

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.