The last thing we’ll see before we die is a dancing robot

The lovely guys at Boston Robotics circulated this video for New Year’s. The video features 2 humanoid robots, a dog robot, and… well, another robot, all dancing to Do You Love Me.

The video is genuinely brilliant on so many levels. Firstly, it is very cool. Great song, excellent dancing, love the idea. Secondly, the technical achievement they are showcasing is breathaking. Like most people, I’ve long marvelled at what they, and other robotics companies are doing. The humanoid robots dance with style, fluidity, and character, and I found it hard to take my eyes off them. I had to keep reminding myself that they are not human, remembering to look at their faces (spoiler: they don’t have faces), to stop my brain registering them as people.

And yet, whilst I enjoyed every moment of the video, I kept returning to the same question: have these guys never been to the cinema?

Surely it would only be possible to create a robot like this if you have never seen a film in which robots take over the world? Hasn’t even one of them seen The Terminator?

Watching the dancing robots, my mind immediately conjoured up the closing moments of a film in which terrifying humanoid robots with no empathy dance brilliantly to Do I Love You before snapping the heads off their inventors, and marching out into the world to kill everyone, their robot dogs at their sides munching severed human limbs.

I have no beef with Boston Robotics. Quite the opposite; only admiration, and this is not aimed at them. It’s the other people that worry me. My concern is that the last few years have just served to remind us of what we should always know from all of history: there’s always bad people.

These last few years have been a catalogue of hacking, assasinations, dictators and want-to-be dictators, extremists, and downright nut-jobs. Some 60m Americans now believe completely untrue conspiracies. Somehow it doesn’t feel like this is a great place into which to drop powerful robots. If I was a scientist or engineer right now, I’d be sitting on my hands, carefully not inventing anything more that humans can use to destroy each other or their planet. We’ve already seen with the Internet and Social Media the extent to which humans will corrupt the best-intentioned invention and turn it into a weapon.

The problem with all the new scientific breakthroughs, from genetics to robotics, quantum computing to AI, is that they are mainly being created by good people with good intentions, but in a world where a lot of the power and wealth is controlled by bad people. There are debates, councils, and global bodies set up to try to prevent any of these inventions from being used for evil, but again, the last few years have shown us that the bad people don’t care about treaties or regulations. That makes it all worse. Whilst the good world agrees not to arm robots, or to use genetics to create customised people, it is the bad countries, bad leaders, and bad people who will ignore those rules and do it anyway.

The rational countries will end up arming their robots simply to defend themselves against the rogue nation’s armed robots.

And so I think that a video of these remarkable machines dancing risks distracting us into thinking they are just harmless and fun. That level of technological genius needs to be seen as a threat, as much as it is also a great opportunity, only because history has repeatedly shown that somewhere in the world there is always someone bad, mad, or sad enough to corrupt the great things humans are capable of, and to use them against other people.

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