By Daniel J. McLaughlin
For every dystopian vision of the robot revolution, whether it is on the big or small screen, or on the pages of a book, there are also comic portrayals of our mechanical counterparts. Where there's a Dalek in Doctor Who, there's a K-9; Skynet may want to hunt down humans in the Terminator movies, but Number Five is just so happy to be alive in Short Circuit. The automatons threaten in fiction, but they provide the laughs, too.
In real life, the machines are causing angst. Will humans be replaced? Will they take my job? Are they becoming too intelligent for their own good? When robots are at their most successful, they are potentially at their most dangerous. However, even they make epic fails, they cause delight.
Why do we like to see robots fail so much?
“I'm only human” is a common excuse for people making mistakes. Errors are fundamentally human. If robots follow this behaviour and replicate humanity's tendency to mess things up, the machines could endear themselves to humans.
According to Live Science, a recent study found that error-prone robots are more likable than error-free ones. Researchers from the Center for Human-Computer Interaction in Salzburg monitored how participants responded to a robot that made unplanned errors whilst using Lego, compared to a machine that flawlessly completed its tasks. Judging their behaviour and body language, participants “responded more positively to the bumbling robot”. This was judged on criteria that included likeability, anthropomorphism, and perceived intelligence. They liked this robot “significantly more” than the one that made no mistakes at all.
The Verge argues it is tricky to say definitely why mistakes make robots more likable, but they cite the 'Pratfall Effect’. This is a phenomenon in social psychology where humans prefer individuals when they mess up. This could also impact humans and robots. It is worth noting, however, that we don't like people who mess up all the time - we want them to be reliable but not infallible. Mistakes make people more relatable and approachable - and, indeed, more human. Mistakes humanise the machines.
Kate Darling, a robot ethicist at MIT's Media Lab, told Vice that she loves watching robot fail videos. It's not necessarily that it provides reassurance that robots are not going to take over the world after all; it's the way we anthropomorphise robots - or in other words, make them human.
She said: “We subconsciously view them as life-like and project our own attributes, emotions, and failings onto them. It's so similar to the way we laugh at 'America's Funniest Home Videos’ or kids falling down, or videos of animals doing silly, human-like things, or compilations of newscaster fails or models tripping on the runway.”
Funny robots can be a distraction, especially from the potential problems caused by their own technology. We build machines to help us, but they could be a hindrance. Speaking to the New Scientist, Mark Coeckelbergh, a philosopher at the University of Twente, calls the shifting relationship between man and machine the “anthropology of vulnerability”. “Laughing at a clumsy and failing robot is also a means to cope with a serious problem,” he said.
As robots continue to develop and grow more intelligent, it is easy to feel fearful about their evolution. Occasionally, we are reminded that the machines are not so perfect after all. It provides a few laughs and giggles - as well as a sigh of relief.