There is something so exquisite about watching robots blow it. What is that?
The fall of Asimo
A bipedal humanoid robot, standing just over 4 feet tall, takes the first few steps up a staircase before crapping out, rigid and pathetic as it falls backward. A small tank-looking robot designed to dispense condiments, with Hulk arms applying pressure on a mock Heinz bottle, squirts ketchup all over a tabletop.
There is something so exquisite about watching robots blow it, and it doesn't take frequenting r/robotfails or r/shittyrobots to know this. Robots are slipping up big time, and it's usually pretty hilarious so long as they're not harming humans. At an almost primal level, it's as satisfying to watch that kid-sized bipedal bot Asimo fall down, as it is watching ketchup bot indiscriminately blasting Heinz classic blend. When we watch robots fail, we so often delight in their fall. Why is that?
Perhaps it's because watching videos or gifs of robots failing makes us feel good about our ourselves as a species, as if we're reassured the machines won't end us anytime soon. Look at those dumb robots fail! There's hope for us yet.
Maybe that's why we laugh. Maybe in viewing a robot's failure, by which I'm speaking purely in terms of mechanical malfunctioning (communication error, a faulty sensor or actuator, dead batteries), not a fail instigated by a malicious or laff-prone human operator, we're reassured, somewhere deep down, that the robopocalypse is still a long way off.
Kate Darling, a robot ethicist at MIT's Media Lab, loves watching robot fail videos. But she thinks laughing at them has less to do with us being reassured that technology isn't going to take over the world, and more to do with the way we anthropomorphize robots. We see a little (ketchup bot) or a lot (bipedal humanoid bot) of us in them.
"We subconsciously view them as lifelike and project our own attributes, emotions, and failings onto them," she said. "It's so similar to the way we laugh at 'America's Funniest Home Videos' or kids falling down, or videos of animals doing silly, human-like things, or compilations of newscaster fails or models tripping on the runway."
As for the exact psychology behind our love for watching videos of humans and animals alike blowing it, Darling isn't sure. "I imagine it's because we relate on some level. I think it's similar with robots," she said.
"Even when our robots are working correctly we are still extremely far from the robot uprising."
Brenna Argall, an assistant professor of rehabilitation robotics at Northwestern University, also finds robot fail videos humorous. She thinks there's little else going on here beside the fact that humans simply love watching unscripted bloopers. But she too believes there's something in the way we anthropomorphize robots that articulate, that have moving joints and speech capabilities and so on, that brings us to laughter.
"When it's something that's not articulated and moving," Argall told me, "when it fails I think it's less humorous to us, for whatever reason. There is something about it being anthropomorphized, whether it's a robot or an animal, that we think is funnier. I would think that's probably because we relate to it better."
Argall, who also heads up a research lab at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago that focuses on adding partial autonomy to assisted machines like wheelchairs and robotic arms, also takes issue with Terminator-style end times reasoning. Like Darling, she thinks viewing the pleasure we derive from watching robots eat shit as reassurance that the robot uprising isn't upon us just plain oversimplifies things.
"Even when our robots are working correctly we are still extremely far from the robot uprising," Argall said. "It's not just that we need to see them failing to be assured of that. All you need to do is look at the actual capabilities of the artificial intelligence that goes into robots, and understand that what is in the computer code is exactly what we put there. Robots aren't going to just spontaneously become self aware unless we have really put the intention into the programming code that they should have those pathways available."
"A robot that isn't very sophisticated with AI, but that is mechanically extremely sound, you're probably not going to see many examples of it failing," she went on. "But you're also never going to see it doing anything intelligently that you aren't expecting."
The Heinz Automato 4
And so, we continue laughing. It leads to a deeper question: What is going on it our brains when we watch an unscripted robot fail?
Dr. Astrid Rosenthal-von der Pütten loves watching robots fail too. Earlier this year, Rosenthal-von der Pütten, a social psychologist at the University of Duisburg-Essen, in Germany, devised a study into our emotional reactions toward robots. She and her colleagues ran fMRI brain scans on 14 volunteers who watched video clips that showed a green box, a woman wearing a green shirt, and a small green robot shaped like a dinosaur, variously treated with affection and violence by experimenters seen on the screen.
Her research, published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, suggests that we empathize with robots treated both affectionately and violently as if they were our fellow man. It gets your mind going: Might our brains operate similarly when watching unscripted robot fails?
Rosenthal-von der Pütten hasn't done any studies on what, exactly, happens in the human brain when it watches a bot screw up. It's an area of research that appears to be lacking; she told me she's unsure if there's anything out there in the literature that looks at our emotional reactions toward robots that fail. (Darling, the robot ethicist at MIT, was likewise unsure if any study of this kind has been carried out, and said it would prove interesting research if taken up.) Regardless, she thinks the scenario brings a lot to bear on whether or not we feel empathetic toward the failed bot, or Schadenfreude, that pleasure sensation we get at the expense of someone else's suffering or misfortune.
"For instance, I felt less Schadenfreude and more empathy seeing Asimo falling down some stairs," Rosenthal-von der Pütten told me. "That might be because it's a) a humanoid robot that b) 'performs an action' that is usually painful for humans, and harmful for the robot respectively."
It's funny when humanoid robots fail. It's also sad. We feel for them.
"I expect that my empathetic brain flashes on immediately"
"I expect that my empathetic brain flashes on immediately," Rosenthal-von der Pütten added, referring to her own viewing of anthropomorphized robot fails. "In contrast, the little robot messing with the ketchup is just funny. But I laugh about colleagues messing with ketchup during lunch break."
She said that's possibly because there is an explicit contrast "between how robots are supposed to be (precise machines, working accurately with no failures, rigid) and how they actually behave (messy, silly, exaggerated, inaccurate)." For her, it's a bit like that Monty Python sketch with a gaggle of male judges who talk about serious matters while sporting women's underwear under their gowns.
"I do not think that laughing in these situations is the expression of reflective thinking about humankind's prospects," Rosenthal-von der Pütten said. "It is more a spontaneous reaction."
What's going on it our brains when we watch robots fail? Who really knows.
What is clear, for now, is that our tendency to derive such pleasure viewing robots fail is seemingly one of the stronger shared human experiences today. That's equally true in the West, where robots, especially those that walk on two legs and otherwise resemble humans, generally are viewed with cautious wonder, if not suspicion and fear, and in places like Japan, where cultural attitudes toward robots of all shapes and sizes tend to be quite friendly. And who knows? One day, they just might all begin failing and falling as gracefully as cats.