Robots Falling Down

IEEE Spectrum had an interesting conversation with robotics experts on robots falling down. There were some interesting speculations on why people respond strongly to videos showing robots falling down. We think the robotics experts might have been looking at it the wrong way, though.

It’s unusual?

Both of the experts suggested that people are interesting in seeing robots fall down because it is unusual. But is it? They acknowledged that robots in DARPA competitions used to fall down all the time. That’s one of the primary ways that robots lose competitions — they fall over. Our industrial robots don’t fall down, but humanoid and even quadrupedal robots fall down fairly often.

It is not realistic to suggest that it is surprising and amazing to see a robot fall over.

This may just be wishful thinking.

It’s funny?

Pratfalls — that is, intentional falling down for comic effect — have been part of slapstick comedy for a long time.

While seeing an industrial robot fall over would not be funny (definitely not), seeing a humanoid robot fall down can be funny to the same people who find pratfalls funny, and for the same reasons.

There might be an element of schadenfreude, but you’re probably seen a baby knock down a stack of blocks and crow with delight. There’s something basic going on.

Umm, schadenfreude?

Schadenfreude is a German word that doesn’t have an exact English translation. It’s a combination (that do that a lot in German) of “harm” and “joy,” meaning a feeling of pleasure at someone else’s misfortune.  For people who worry about the robot apocalypse, when the robot overlords will take away our jobs and enslave us, seeing a robot fall down might give them a little satisfaction.

“Robot overlords?” they might think. “They can’t even walk!”

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