I, Frankenstein

The uncanny, human inhumanity of Boston Dynamics’ androids.

Boston Dynamics' BigDog robot.
Boston Dynamics’ BigDog robot.

Courtesy Boston Dynamics

One of the strangest and most unsettling things I have seen on the Internet in quite a while—and like everyone else, I regularly see strange and unsettling things on the Internet—is a YouTube video called “Petman Tests Camo.” It begins with a figure walking in place on a treadmill. The figure is wearing a beige combat suit with black gloves and boots, its face covered by a gas mask, likewise black. There is a harness around its torso, by which it is connected to a metal frame surrounding the treadmill. There is something almost comical about its stride, precise yet ungainly.

And yet it isn’t comical at all; its dogged purposefulness is strangely horrifying. Never more so than when, about 15 seconds in—well, watch:

The video cuts to reveal a robot bearing a significant resemblance to C-3PO from Star Wars, still striding in place, but now without the clothing; then it cuts back to the figure suited again, crouching now, and doing a series of squats and arm movements.

The video is one of a series of similarly unnerving clips that have shown up on YouTube over the last few years, released by the robotics firm Boston Dynamics, which was bought by Google last week. Before the acquisition, the company was probably best known for the DARPA-funded BigDog project, a four-legged robot developed to serve as a high-tech pack mule for soldiers on rocky and hilly terrain. The robot is capable of running, climbing and carrying extremely heavy loads on its “back.” To me, though, it’s most noteworthy for the peculiar unease that comes from observing its movements. I’ve been keeping a nervous eye on Boston Dynamics and its doings ever since I came across a video of this unholy creature about a year ago. Just look at the thing, for God’s sake: Look at it skittering in blank panic over a patch of ice; look at it trotting jauntily across a factory floor, and picking its cautious way over a pile of cement blocks.

Why exactly am I so creeped out by these videos? These are, after all, only machines, assemblages of metals and plastics controlled by microchips; but observing them, I feel something close to the kind of revulsion I normally feel only for actual living creatures—cockroaches, say, or moths (the less said about which the better). And this is surely at the center of it: the fact that these machines seem so organic, so close to something that is alive. It’s as though they are performing a kind of grim parody of living things, an unsettling approximation of the movement and bearing of flesh-and-blood animals.

A concept that often gets brought to bear in discussions of this kind of unease is that of the uncanny valley—the theory that as approximations of human forms and behaviors (usually in robotics and 3-D animation) approach verisimilitude, people’s responses tend toward unease or revulsion. I’m not the only person who finds Boston Dynamics’ creations unnerving; if you read the comments on any of the videos, you’ll find a spectrum of variations on the theme of mortal terror. The Petman footage, for instance, has elicited the following responses in just the last few days: “We are doomed”; “I’m gonna have trouble sleeping”; “This thing freaks me out”; “Oh fuck we’re all gonna die”; and the more cool-headed “Please, stop. The world don’t needs all this crap.”

Almost 200 years ago, Mary Shelley wrote insightfully in Frankenstein about the specific kinds of terror and revulsion that some of our own stranger technological creations can provoke in us. Before Victor Frankenstein’s monster gets all bent out of shape about being abandoned by his maker and starts killing people, what’s initially horrifying about the monster—who is, let’s remember, literally a creature of death, made from spare corpse parts—is his appearance. The reason Frankenstein flees from him after giving him life, and therefore the reason that the monster winds up going on a vengeful killing spree, is basically that he looks creepy as all hell. Frankenstein is filled with a “breathless horror and disgust” from the moment he sees his own creation:

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!—Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

The creepiness here comes from the almost-but-not-quite-lifelike appearance; it’s the “luxuriances”—the perfect teeth and lustrous hair and so on—that really horrify. Boston Dynamics is not in the luxuriance business, obviously, but there’s something of this terrible off-ness, this instinctually felt wrongness, to watching Petman’s dogged movements. It’s human, but also crucially other than human. The sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov used the term “Frankenstein Complex” to denote a fear of humanoid robots; it’s something like this, perhaps, that is at work in the typical reaction to Petman.

But it’s not just ersatz humanity, but ersatz life that unsettles me so. I recoil no less violently from the sight of the nonhumanoid creations of Boston Dynamics. I am just as unsettled by something like BigDog, or the similarly unpleasant WildCat. More than the appearance of these creatures, it’s their motion that gets to me. WildCat, with its jointed limbs and its clunkily headless body, looks like a machine, but it moves like a creature. It’s the legs, now that I think of it, that specifically horrify; if this thing were on wheels, or if it hovered half a foot above ground level, I’d probably be more or less OK with it.

It seems plausible that this unease has something to do with a primal fear of predation—of being got by something, of being something’s prey. WildCat moves like a cheetah, or is intended to, but it unsettles in a way that looking at a film of a running animal never could. The fact that machines like BigDog and WildCat were developed with funding from the Pentagon’s research agency reinforces a sense of menace that is already inherent in their visual aspect. You don’t need to know that their intended application is, directly or otherwise, one of violence to feel a sense of the sinister emanating from them. We think we want our machines to be more alive, more lifelike. But there is something about WildCat’s uncanny dressage, about BigDog’s insectile scuttle, that encapsulates a certain kind of anxious ambivalence about technology—about where we might be taking it, where it might be taking us.

And so maybe it’s that merging of the familiar and the strange that accounts for how deeply unnerving these machines are. The fact that something so totally artificial—so obviously unnatural—appears so weirdly close to a natural form. I find this contradiction almost literally nightmarish: It’s the horrible spectacle of the object which is alive, or the living thing which is also an object. For Ernst Jentsch (who introduced the concept of the uncanny with his essay “On the Psychology of the Uncanny” in 1906), a major source of the phenomenon was an uncertainty of distinction between living beings and inanimate objects—“doubt,” as he puts it, “as to whether an apparently living being really is animate and, conversely, doubt as to whether a lifeless object may not in fact be animate.” He’s talking about things like waxwork models and scarecrows, but he also singles out “life-size machines that perform complicated tasks, blow trumpets, dance and so forth.” Toward the  end of the essay, he writes that “the horror which a dead body (especially a human one),  a death’s head, skeletons and similar things cause can also be explained to a great extent by the fact that thoughts of a latent animate state always lie so close to these things.”

Part of what’s so compellingly unsettling about Boston Dynamics’ menagerie of animated objects is this weird confusion between object and living thing, which is maybe just a sort of horrified realization of the sense in which living things—animals and people—are objects. Frankenstein’s monster is alive, but he (or it) is also a construction of parts, appendages, dead things. And so are we. That’s a brutally rationalistic way of seeing ourselves, but one that’s not untrue: We are all of us just objects, mechanisms of survival and reproduction, set up to remain animated for a time. Boston Dynamics’ creatures are like cruel, surreal techno-parodies of organic life, absurdist mockeries of living things. Maybe what’s so unnerving about watching Petman striding purposefully, pointlessly, on his treadmill isn’t the fear that he’s coming for us, but the fear that he is us, or that we are him.