Robotic reindeer raise eyebrows: Will humans ever accept robots as normal?

The Google-owned robotics company released a holiday card on Tuesday showing its Spot robotic dog pulling a sleigh, sparking questions about the robots brisk, unworldly appearance.

In the future, robots of all shapes and sizes may drive cars, check customers into a hotel room and even alternate between assisting the US military and serving as a robotic reindeer.

That’s the vision of Google-owned robotics company Boston Dynamics, which released a holiday video on Tuesday featuring a team of its Spot robotic dogs stepping delicately through a very snowless ground, pulling a sleigh.

Spot, a hydraulic-powered quadruped robot, which recently participated in training exercises with US Marines, could potentially have a large impact on military capabilities, as a rugged, fast-moving robot suitable for a variety of uses in difficult terrain.

But as with Boston Dynamic’s earlier Big Dog robot – which vaguely calls to mind a headless version of the mutant spiders from the 1954 sci-fi movie “Them!” – Spot’s design seems to raise the question: why does this technology often appear so terrifying?

“Boston Dynamics doesn't care if you never sleep again. Welcome to the future. We've just met the robotic soldiers fighting the war on Christmas,” wrote the Washington Post’s Rachel Feltman.

“We have to applaud the team on creating a video that will be spread far and wide and inspire fear in the hearts of many while also spreading the good news about the latest innovations in robotics,” she added.

Reactions to the company’s card, which seem to run more towards the paranoid and dystopian rather than heartwarming, may point a phenomenon researchers call the “uncanny valley,” where the more life-like and human a robot gets, the more people feel uneasy and fearful about them.

“Maybe it’s that merging of the familiar and the strange that accounts for how deeply unnerving these machines are,” wrote Slate’s Mark O’Connell in 2013, after watching a video of Boston Dynamics’ robot creations. “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.”

That concern has fueled science fiction since Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and is likely to bedevil scientists and engineers as robots become more integrated into daily life.

Companies appear to have different takes on the challenge. Google’s prototype self-driving cars have been described as “verging on the cutesy” by one writer, while the appropriately named “Weird Hotel” at a theme park in Japan features a bizarre robotic dinosaur as a checkout clerk.

It seems to leave an open question: will we always feel uneasy about robots often un-natural appearance, or will we eventually wonder why we ever thought reindeer didn’t look like Boston Dynamics’ Spot?

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