Promobot robot stands in the middle of a road

Designed to make us feel

Promobot

An electric buggy’s brakes fail, sending it into the street where it blocks traffic; its owners say that it’s the third time this has happened and they’re going to have to scrap it. Bystanders nod and get on with their day.

A dog slips its leash, running into the street where it blocks traffic; its owners say that it’s the third time this has happened and they’re going to put the dog down. Bystanders are understandably horrified.

Last month, the Russian robot Promobot wandered out of its testing and programming facility for the third time, blocking traffic when its battery ran out in the street. Its owners expected the first kind of reaction when they said they were going to scrap it. They got the second.

This should not have come as a surprise. They gave Promobot a wide face and large eyes, infant-like traits that the human brain is wired to see as “cute” and non-threatening, encouraging protective instincts. Seeing as the bot was intended for customer relations, its makers wanted humans to have a friendly, empathetic reaction to the machine, and that’s what they got.

Robot dog slapstick

These scientists aren’t alone; by hijacking our pre-programmed response in this way, robot designers around the world have begun to expand our “circle of empathy“, intentionally or otherwise. And while this may lead to some unexpected complications, in the long run it is a good thing.

The Promobot “escape” wasn’t the only bit of robot news. Boston Dynamics put out a video of its Spot Mini quadruped robot, a cocker-spaniel-size sibling of …

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