Ever heard of the Boston BigDog? No, it’s not a new gourmet sandwich—it’s “the most advanced quadruped robot on earth,” the alpha male of the Boston Dynamics family of robots, designed to walk, run and climb on rough terrain, and carry heavy loads. The name is misleading; the BigDog looks more like a headless deer or donkey than a dog, and it’s certainly not anything you’d want sleeping at the foot of your bed, or hanging around your home. In short, the Boston BigDog is very creepy indeed.
Boston Dynamics is a prototype engineering company that builds robots for use with DARPA, the US Army, Navy and Marine Corps, and other organizations. It also has a profitable line in “human simulation software” for adding lifelike human characters to real time visual simulations. BigDog is the company’s most advanced robot, but not its only one. There is also LittleDog, which is “designed for research on learning locomotion” and resembles a huge black cockroach; the RiSE, a mechanical creepy-crawly with a Mansonesque name that “climbs vertical terrain such as walls, trees and fences,” and the SquishBot, a “soft, shape-changing robot” that looks like something David Cronenberg might have dreamed up. And then there’s the PetMan, “an anthropomorphic robot for testing chemical protection clothing” that walks upright on two legs and has the ability to sweat.
All of them are disturbing to watch. Video clips of BigDog in action, regularly posted on YouTube, elicit more shock than awe. One viewer comments: “If I saw that coming toward me I’d shit my pants.” “I swear I’m gonna have nightmares about that thing,” adds another. “Holy shit, that thing is creepy!” exclaims a third. It is beyond doubt: BigDog inhabits the depths of the Uncanny Valley.
For those unfamiliar with this concept — named by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori — it refers to a dip in the graph on which emotional response is plotted against similarity to real life appearance and movement. The more lifelike something appears — a doll, robot or manga character, for example — the more we respond to it emotionally. This affective connection continues right up to the point just before the object attains a completely lifelike look, when suddenly, the graph line takes a deep plunge. At this point, the object is so close to real life that, rather than identifying it as a lifelike object, our mind acknowledges it as an object-like lifeform. Because our brains are so accustomed to recognizing living things, these animate creatures can evoke a frightening cognitive dissonance: they seem unhealthy, genetically unfit. There seems to be something slightly wrong with them, something out of place—an odd surface texture, asymmetrical facial expression, exaggerated features, proportions or body parts that move in concert without being directly connected.
Sigmund Freud defined the uncanny as “that class of the frightening that leads back to what is known of old and long familiar.” Uncanny things give us the creeps, according to Freud, because they suddenly remind us of infantile beliefs and desires that we’ve long repressed —the belief in magic, for example, or the omnipotence of thoughts, the return of the dead, and the coming to life of inanimate objects.
These animate creatures can evoke a frightening cognitive dissonance: they seem unhealthy, genetically unfit.
In robotics, the Uncanny Valley effect is most often evoked by the face, which is why it may not be a good idea for sex dolls to look too lifelike, and why people look scary after too much plastic surgery. Interestingly enough, BigDog does not have a face. In this case, the uncanny effect is evoked by the set of organically coordinated legs. What is so disturbing about BigDog is the way it can right itself when it trips, falls, or skids on ice. BigDog’s legs, according to its designers, are articulated like an animal’s and have compliant elements that absorb shock and recycle energy from one step to the next. The legs are so realistic that they leave us with the distinct impression that BigDog is alive.
If you don’t believe me, go to YouTube (See Resources) and watch as it struggles to right itself after being given a hefty kick in the mechanical ribs. If you don’t feel a quick pang of sympathy, you might well be a robot yourself.