Earlier in 2017, a security robot patrolling a Washington, D.C. technology park accidentally drove itself into a man-made pond. The robot–a K5 Automated Data Machine, manufactured by Knightscope–was patrolling at night and most likely failed to distinguish the steps leading into the retention pond from the surrounding walkway (a mistake I have also made on occasion).
The story quickly went viral, with humorous articles declaring the unfortunate robot had decided to put an end to its monotonous job once and for all: Suicidal robot security guard drowns itself by driving into pond, according to the UK’s Independent, while CNN.com reported the robot was in “critical condition” after nearly drowning. Other posters claimed that “Steps are our best defense against the Robopocalypse”, and that “…today was a win for the humans. robots: 0 humans: 1”.
Clearly, the rather pathetic image of the K5 floating face-down in the water (as near as it can be said to have a “face”) struck a deep chord with the Internet commentariat. And no wonder: research shows that, because modern technology is so sophisticated, we unconsciously relate to machines as if they were, in fact, people. When a machine doesn’t meet our expectations–say, by failing to print a document–we respond as if a cranky coworker is refusing to do his job. It can feel maddening, and–as with our coworkers–may escalate to the type of violence that researchers have named “computer rage.”
However, in this situation, most people weren’t angry at the malfunctioning robot: they were amused, of course, but also compassionate. “It’s ok security robot. It’s a stressful job, we’ve all been there.” writes SparkleOps. Workers at the technology park arranged a makeshift memorial, like those placed on the sidewalk following a tragic accident. The K5 Automated Data Machine may not have been alive, but it’s “passing” nevertheless evoked our collective need to honor, remember, and mourn the fallen. Self-aware machines are still only science fiction, but as we incorporate the technology we do have into all aspects of our lives, perhaps it’s time to consider them, if not alive, then at least fellow travelers.