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Why Do We Feel So Bad When Boston Dynamics' New Robot Falls Down?

I get knocked down, but I get up again.
Rachel Pick
New York, US

On Tuesday, the engineers at the Boston Dynamics robotics lab posted a video of their latest bot in action. Boston Dynamics has been working on a bipedal robot named Atlas for some time now, and this new version is the most impressive yet—particularly in its ability to recover from falls and right itself on its own.

But as thoroughly inhuman as Atlas still looks, its misadventures in the video stir up a surprising range of emotions. As Atlas wobbles through snowy, uneven forest terrain, we may feel triumph when it rights itself from a near-fall. When the engineers deliberately knock Atlas to the ground, we may feel pathos and a tiny bit of righteous anger.

The engineers also set Atlas the task of picking up a box, only to knock it out of Atlas's arms with a hockey stick (remember, this is Boston) and slide the box out of its way several times.

Even though all the things the engineers do to mess with the robot are done to showcase its ability to correct itself, recover from falls, and persevere in performing tasks, the human tendency to anthropomorphize non-sentient objects is so strong as to override our common-sense knowledge that Atlas is an object incapable of feeling. Engineers commonly kick robots to demonstrate their ability to recover, and it always feels a tiny bit cruel. It's a strange quirk of the brain—though the tendency is stronger in some people than in others.

The last shot of the video shows Atlas pushing open a door and exiting the test facility on his own. Despite Atlas being a collection of motors, metal, and plastic, it's almost as if the bot is saying "screw this, I'm outta here."