Why Are People Afraid of Robots?

The psychology behind why intelligent machines scare the bejeezus out of us.

The robot apocalypse is probably a ways off, but the pop culture robot apocalypse arrived years ago. Our movies imagine a doom spiral of slavery and extinction, but reality is a bit different: Robots build cars and dance for our pleasure. Imagine robots are terrifying and real robots are useful, but that doesn’t stop us from fearing our potential overlords.

To be clear, what I’m talking about is closer to prejudice than “robophobia,” which is, by definition, an irrational fear. The fear of robots I’m referring to seems to stem from associations people make and conclusions that they draw. The fear is not irrational, but that doesn’t mean it’s well thought out.

There are three potential reasons behind machine fright:

Uncanny Valley

The “Uncanny Valley” is a sociology term referring to the creeps one is given by depictions of humanlike people or objects that closely resemble actual humans. This could even just be CGI animation onscreen that doesn’t even have a physical presence. But when we’re talking about robots, we’re talking about humanoid machines with a human face. And for many people, that shit is weird.

Basically, as a robot more looks and acts like a human being, we increasingly empathize and relate to it. Until a certain point is crossed — where suddenly the robot takes on an eerie quality that is too human.

The human lookalike robot Repliee Q2 

Wikimedia Commons

It’s not completely clear why this happens. It might be an evolutionary knee-jerk reaction where our autonomous senses — specifically, the ones scanning and evaluating potential mates — detect features in someone (or in this case, something) that raises flags and points to a bad mate. It might also just be an instinctual response to seeing something that goes against conventional norms, or our heads trying to resolve the cognitive dissonance that comes with conflicting perceptual cues (i.e. seeing something that looks and sounds human, but which you know isn’t really human).

The Frankenstein Complex

A phrase coined by Isaac Asimov, ‘The Frankenstein complex’ is the fear that something a human makes will turn on its creator — just like in Mary Shelley’s novel where Victor Frankenstein dies at the hands of his monster.

The Frankenstein complex is grounded under the historical fear of men trying to be gods and bringing to life something they don’t have complete understanding of. If human life is beyond the capacity of people to understand, then humans creating something that is similar to human life is irresponsible — especially since that creation will also possess the same mental deficiencies or shortcomings human beings do.

The Media

This last reason has more to do with the fact robots are a fairly new phenomenon. It is only in the 20th century when humans started thinking it was possible to create robots. And since then, we’ve been inundated with countless works of science fiction — from Terminator to the Matrix trilogy to Colossus — that pit humans against machines in a battle for survival.

Something similar was happening centuries ago involving a different fear. For a while, the Western world was obsessed with the idea of heaven and hell — and people from all walks of life were scared to death that Satan and evil spirits were around us at every juncture, trying to possess us or lead us towards doom. Books, paintings, speeches — so much of the ‘olde’ content people used to absorb was focused around the concept of evil and eternal damnation. As society moved forward and those things moved out of the center of discourse, they were replaced with terrifying versions of other ‘demons’ — a.k.a. robots.

So what does this mean? Are our fears of robots totally misguided? Not necessarily. More advanced technology has resulted in automated computers and systems doing work and solving problems way faster than humans ever could. It’s not unthinkable that we might one day create an artificial intelligent system that’s smarter than us — and knows it’s smarter than us.

But just as we learned to stop fearing the devil, we might also learn to stop fearing robots as we become more and more accustomed to them. It’s important to remember that humans have the ability to program these machines — which means we can deploy measures that ensure the robot apocalypse won’t happen. At the very least, the uncanny valley may keep us from ever wanting to create a robot that’s totally human — and maybe that’s what keeps robots from ever wanting to rise up and take over the world.

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