People Are Brutally Assaulting Robots. Experts Want to Know Why

What does it say about a person if they beat and dismember a robot?

1. 20. 19 by Jon Christian
Terminator 2/TriStar
Image by Terminator 2/TriStar

Killing Robots

Remember when assailants beat and dismembered a hitchhiking robot? Or destroyed a sex robot at an electronics show? Or when a man pulled a gun on a Waymo self-driving car? Or beat an educational robot with a baseball bat?

Those incidents aren’t outliers, experts say. Again and again, people across the world are attacking and injuring robots — a trend, according to the New York Times, that could indicate a deep compulsion to lash out against automatons, and which could have wide-ranging implications for the future of interactions between robots and humans.

Rage Against the Machine

One hypothesis is that the violence is due to economic anxiety: people are worried that robots could take their jobs.

That’s one plausible solution, according to the Times, but another could be the ancient and brutal human tendency to exclude tribal outsiders.

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“You have an agent, the robot, that is in a different category than humans,” Italian cognitive psychologist Agnieszka Wykowska told the paper. “So you probably very easily engage in this psychological mechanism of social ostracism because it’s an out-group member. That’s something to discuss: the dehumanization of robots even though they’re not humans.”

Frankenstein Syndrome

Wykowska blames anti-robot violence on what she calls “Frankenstein syndrome” — the fear of unknown things that are somewhat like us, but different in uncanny ways. Wykowska told the Times about an incident, for instance, in which a colleague introduced robots to a kindergarten class.

The children “have this tendency of being very brutal to the robot, they would kick the robot, they would be cruel to it, they would be really not nice,” she said.

But there was a bright side, she told the paper. When the teachers told the children that the robots had names — humanizing them, perhaps, in a small way — the violence stopped.

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READ MORE: Why Do We Hurt Robots? [The New York Times]

More on anti-robot violence: People Are Reportedly Attacking Driverless Cars in California


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