A special kind of joy comes from watching robots totally blow it. It's anybody's guess as to why, but it might be that we've become so saturated with rhetoric hyping up artificial intelligence's potential for world domination that watching a robot fall flat on its face has become a kind of existential catharsis.
Shitty robots are a metaphor for shitty years, too—so full of promise at the start, and crumpled in an expensive heap by the end. This year will no doubt be remembered for deadly viral outbreaks, killer cops, destructive hacks, and public hysteria. A real shitty robot of a year, this one was, and watching it happen over and over again in the abstract could be seen as an emotional salve, in a Freudian sort of way.
Whatever the reason for our collective love of watching terrible robots be completely terrible, it's undeniable: everybody loves a shitty robot, and these were the worst of the year.
Paperboy, the Toilet Paper Delivery Robot
Paperboy was a last-minute entry to the "shittiest robots of 2014" competition that I just made up, and it's exactly the kind of terrible robot that I like to see. A ramshackle collection of objects commonly found in the home—what appears to be an RC car (though the presenter in the video says it's voice-activated, that claim remains unsubstantiated), a wooden cabinet, a motorized toilet paper roll, and some festive decorations make up the robot—Paperboy is about as endearing as useless robots get.
A mechanized Rube Goldberg machine for hooking up with thirsty randos, this robot is actually pretty clever. It's a simple design that is extremely effective at what it does, which just so happens to be endlessly swiping right on Tinder. But, as anybody who's drunkenly thought, "Fuck it," and swiped right with abandon late one night knows, this robot is merely facilitating disappointment and disaster. And for that, Tinder-bot is one of the worst robots of the year.
The Adorably Shitty Penguin Rover
Observing penguins in their natural habitat is really hard, as Motherboard's Joshua Krisch found out when he interviewed the creators of this adorable little penguin rover. A souped-up version of a regular remote controlled rover from the French Ministry of the Interior, this little 'bot awkwardly rolls up to groups of emperor penguins and enables scientists to watch their activities from a safe distance. It's pretty graceless, but it gets the job done, and watching it fumble around in the snow somehow makes it even cuter.
This Terrible Robot Goalkeeper
This choice slice of utter robotic failure comes to us from RoboCup 2014, an annual competition founded in 1997 in which teams of robots play soccer against each other. As you can probably imagine, it's usually a complete disaster. National Geographic put together a video montage of the 2012 RoboCup, and it's an essential compendium of robots falling over, over and over. It never gets old.
The Mother of All Shitty Robot Competitions
This is it: the moment in 2014 when shitty robots became more than a joke—they became a philosophy. Hebocon was a robot competition that pit robots built by folks with minimal technical skills against each other in a sumo ring. The results weren't just hilarious, they were transcendent. "Crappiness trumps strategy," was one of the competitions taglines, and it could just as easily be a mantra. When I watch a robot made out of motorized dildos and a kleenex box flail wildly around an arena of contest that it didn't choose to be in, well, I can't help but see a little bit of myself in it.