Would You Shoot R2-D2 in the Face?

by @edent | # # # | 3 comments | Read ~3,864 times.

The most distressing movie moment I experienced when I was a child, was watching R2-D2 being shot by a TIE fighter towards the end of Star Wars. (Spoiler!)
R2D2 Shot
The sheer callousness of a "baddie" deliberately inflicting pain on a cute a loveable character is, I suppose, understandably upsetting - especially to a small child.

I also got upset at C-3PO being dismantled in The Empire Strikes Back, and at Johnny 5 being beaten up in Short Circuit 2. But both those characters have anthropomorphic features - bipedeal, two eyes, hands, and - most importantly - voices.
Robots being hurt
R2-D2 has none of those. He isn't recognisably human in any conventional sense. Yet, undeniably, he (and R2's gender is a whole other topic!) is "cute". He has a silly, sing-song voice, a mischievous personality, and has a bumbling means of locomotion. Just like a pet.

This brings me to the topic of war. Naturally.

Watch this video of Boston Dynamics' "Big Dog" robot and tell me what your reaction is to the event at 35 seconds.

Most people I know have a visceral reaction to it. While obviously a robot - our primitive monkey brains see it as a living creature. When someone inflicts pain on it, our emotional response kicks in before our rational response.

That's the reaction that people have after experiencing the robot for less than a minute. What would happen if you spent every day working with a similar robot?

As it turns out, humans form very strong emotional bonds with their robot "pets".

Julie Carpenter, from the University of Washington, recently published a thesis entitled "The Quiet Professional: An Investigation of U.S. Military Explosive Ordnance Disposal Personnel Interactions With Everyday Field Robots." The investigation is whether or not having an emotional attachment to an EOD (explosive ordinance disposal) robot might influence the decisions made by the robot's operator to the extent that it could alter the outcome of a mission.
Soldiers Can Get Emotionally Attached to Robots, and That May Not Be a Good Thing

How emotionally attached, you ask?

Some of the grunts I worked with lost a MARCBOT and they awarded him a Purple Heart, BSM, and they did a full burial detail with 21 gun salute at Taji. Some people got upset about it but those little bastards can develop a personality, and they save so many lives.
mastersterling on Reddit

One suggestion is that robots be designed to have less personality. I think that's the wrong approach. These robots need more personality.

It's rather easy to imagine enemy soldiers taking pot-shots at a bog standard robot - this bomb disposal unit looks totally devoid of personality; no one would have any qualms about shooting it.


Suppose it was designed to look - for want of a better word - cute? Large eyes, a dopey grin on its face, floppy ears, and a brightly patterned covering.

Instead of sending killer robots like this:

What if our war machines were designed to look like this:

You'd have to be insane not to fire at a Terminator - but what kind of sick, heartless bastard would fire at a Teletubby skipping merrily across the battlefield?

If you saw a killer robot coming towards you which looked like R2-D2 (or any other popular culture "friendly" robot) - how easy would it be for you to overcome your friendly feelings towards it?

3 thoughts on “Would You Shoot R2-D2 in the Face?

  1. Wim says:

    While I recon people's first reaction to a "cute" robot might be positive, when it starts committing atrocities on a large scale (ie, war), I think people will start identifying the robot as a symbol of evil.

    Furthermore, the past has proven that large groups of people can easily be conditioned to hate people of a specific ethnicity, country of origin, religious or political belief, or virtually any property imaginable. I don't see why this would be different for robots.

  2. I agree totally Terence - the first time I saw the video of that chap trying to push Big Dog over I was angry at "him" being hurt.
    As an Engineer I have a natural empathy with machinery and a life-long fascination with robots. Indeed my first three computers were called Huey, Dewey, and Louie

  3. Steve Carter says:

    Like George Lucas, you've missed what makes any character recognizably human: behaviour and interaction. Puppeteers understand this. Sure, the appearance of an inanimate object evokes a first impression, but a bond emerges according to behaviour. In the case of the quadruped, observing its gait causes us to attribute cow- or dog-like qualities to it. In the case of artoo, it's his anthropomorphic courage and stubbornness, which we discover as for a ventriloquist's dummy, through his operator C3P0. In the case of the bomb disposal robot, similar courage is attributed because it does things the grunt would not.

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