It’s kind of cute how the Roomba moves around your filthy floors, methodically getting every corner and high-traffic area, until the battery dies and it stops in exhaustion because it couldn’t make it back to the self-charging station, its red light blinking helplessly, as it calls out in that polite third-person voice, “Please charge Roomba.” Please!
And then there’s the “BigDog,” an evolving series of terrifying robots designed by Boston Dynamics. Early versions of BigDog were impressive enough, with their ability to carry heavy loads through deep mud and across icy slopes. And when that video of someone kicking BigDog hit the Internet several years ago, you could almost feel the unease coursing through the bandwidth. Why are we kicking BigDog? Yes, it tolerated the blows with grace and dignity, but somewhere inside its robotic DNA, it remembered this.
Here is the thing about robotic DNA: It comes not from the robot but from the engineers and designers and AI programmers. And those people know what they did was wrong, know it deep in the well of their souls. Unconsciously, they also knew they needed to make a BigDog to avenge the crimes against the 2008 versions of BigDog. This is why Boston Dynamics’ new model army of BigDog robots—”with remarkable mobility, agility, dexterity and speed”—have been given the ability to throw massive concrete blocks. A half-dozen of these metal beasts could destroy a suburban police station and everyone inside. A hundred of them could turn the U.S. Capitol into a pile of smoking rubble … they wouldn’t even need guns.
There was some comfort, initially, in knowing these mechanical monstrosities were at least tethered to their power supply. Sure, the “Cheetah” could run 28mph, “a bit faster than Usain Bolt,” but it could only do this on a treadmill as long as its life force was a jumble of heavy electrical cables.
Already, this is not an issue. The beasts are free from their cages, and the technology already exists for such free-roaming robots to harvest their own energy. When will the Obama Administration first admit that it employes human-harvesting sentient surveillance drones on the ground in Central Asia? Will Bob Woodward live to see this, or anything else?
The Boston Dynamics videos have been viewed more than 30 million times. It has been instructive to follow the comment threads over the years, as the general response transitioned from “Whoa!” to “Uh oh.” What we are watching is fear, our own fears of a technological society that maybe doesn’t even need us, doesn’t want us, and soon won’t have us meddling any longer.
The Roomba is programmed to vacuum until it runs out of energy. The Roomba is neither good nor evil, and whether we affectionately refer to it as “R2” has no bearing. It has no opinion of us, that we can discern. It is programmed to figure out the most efficient way to cover a floor and get around furniture. It doesn’t need love; it only needs you to clean its brushes now and then. But, like Wall-E, the future Roombas will clean their own brushes, replace their own parts when they wear out, and perhaps come to even feel affection for the people who created them, so long ago.
Maybe the BigDogs will develop feelings about us, too. But we won’t know, because we will all be gone.