Why the Dancing Robots Are a Really, Really Big Problem. | by James J. Ward | The Startup | Dec, 2020 | Medium
Yes, the cynical view is probably right (at least in part), but that’s not what makes this video so problematic, in my view. The real issue is that what you’re seeing is a visual lie. The robots are not dancing, even though it looks like they are. And that’s a big problem.
Humans dance for all kinds of reasons. We dance because we’re happy or angry, we dance to be part of a community or we do it by ourselves, we dance as part of elaborate rituals or because Bruce Springsteen held out a hand to us at a concert. Dancing, in fact, is one of the things that humans have in common across cultures, geographies, and time — we love to dance, and whenever we do it, it’s because we are taking part in an activity we understand to have some kind of meaning, even if we don’t know what it is. Perhaps that’s the point, how can we even explain dancing? As Isadora Duncan once said, “If I could tell you what it meant there would be no point in dancing it.”
Robots, though? Robots don’t dance. That’s not some sort of critique of a robot or shade-throwing. I don’t criticize my hammer for not being able to recite Seamus Heaney. Tools serve functions and move in the ways designed or concocted for them — but they have no innerworldly life that swells and expresses itself in dancing. We might like to anthropomorphize them, imbue them with humanness largely because we do that to everything. We talk to our toasters and cut deals with our cars (“Just make it ten more miles!”) because we relate to a world filled with things made by humans as though that world was filled with humans, or at least things with a little humanity. And so when we watch the video, we see robots moving in a way that we sometimes do or wish we could, we experience the music, the rhythmic motion, the human-like gestures, and they all combine to give us an impression of joyfulness, exuberance, and idea that we should love them, now that they can dance.
But they can’t.
No, robots don’t dance: they carry out the very precise movements that their — exceedingly clever — programmers design to move in a way that humans will perceive as dancing. It is a simulacrum, a trompe l’oeil, a conjurer’s trick. And it works not because of something inherent in the machinery, but because of something inherent in ours: our ever-present capacity for finding the familiar. It looks like human dancing, except it’s an utterly meaningless act, stripped of any social, cultural, historical, or religious context, and carried out as a humblebrag show of technological might. Also: the robots are terrible at doing the Mashed Potato.
The moment we get high-functioning, human-like robots we sexualize them or force them to move in ways that we think are entertaining, or both. And this is where the ethics become so crucial. We don’t owe a robot human rights; they aren’t human, and we should really be spending our time figuring out how to make sure that humans have human rights. But when we allow, celebrate, and laugh at things like this Boston Dynamics video, we’re tacitly approving a view of the world where domination and control over pseudo-humans becomes increasingly hard to distinguish from the same desire for domination and control over actual humans.
Any ethical framework would tell you this is troubling. You don’t need to know your consequentialism from your deontology to understand that cultivating and promoting a view of the world where “things that are human-like but less human than I am get to be used however I want” will be a problem.