By Robert Hickson 20/06/2019


No one seems to have much trouble with robots fighting each other – RobotBattles, BattleBots.

People pay good money too to watch movies of good gals and guys with guns, metal presses, and vats of molten metal killing bad bots.

We are now also seeing people attack robots. There are various reasons for this, including anger at them as “job takers”, but more generally classing them as foreign or “outsiders”. It’s an old human trait.

 Reminiscent of the old hypothetical newspaper headline “Man bites dog!”, what’s going to be newsworthy soon is “Robot attacks person!”

A video just released of a Boston Dynamics Atlas robot apparently hitting back at its human persecutors provides an interesting illustration.

I, along with many others, was on the robot’s side. Even when knowing the video is fake, it’s relatable.  To hell with Asimov’s laws in such cases.

Why is this? Earlier experiments have shown that:

“given the slightest hint of humanness, people will respond with an enormous array of social responses including, in this case, reciprocating and retaliating.” Cliff Nass

It’s not that we view the robot as human (we’d have the same response to bear baiting), but that given the circumstances the behaviour is seen as justified and proportionate. Many of us empathise. This is common.

Who didn’t feel a twinge of empathy as Hal 9000 sang “Daisy” as it was shut down?


Giving robots names can change the behaviour of children toward them, and introducing robots to a community can help them be accepted.

If robots are perceived as a relatively benign “authority figure” we can trust them, even if they get things wrong.

At other times it is more about us than them. Giving robots’ rights may be less about protecting them and more about making humans feel better.

But we may move away from seeing robots as either tools or “persons”, and take more nuanced views based on how they affect social interactions.

As more advanced automated machines become available, and the prevalence of robots spreads this situation is likely to change.  Will there be generational empathy divides if robots come to dominate elder care?

Will the sci-fi scenarios of storming automated factories come to pass? “Ban the ‘bots!” marches?

Blaming robots is misguided though. They are simply products. Economic and political decisions are what influences automation.

As The Verge puts it, “the future of robot empathy is going to be a mess.”

A career in human-robot relationships would be a smart move.


Featured image: screen shot from Corridor Crew video