The DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals is a showcase for the robo- and technophilic among us, but it's also a laboratory for those interested in psychology, anthropology and philosophy. Obvious to everyone and surprising to many has been the emotional reactions of the crowd-not to mention their own reactions-to the successes and failures of the robots as they negotiate the tasks of the Finals courses. Those emotional responses-most apparent as the clapping, cheering and groaning more familiar at sporting contests-emerge automatically, one might even say robotically.
"The emotional identification with the robots is pretty immediate," said an attendee from Los Angeles. "It is hard to see one of these things without feeling that is alive and part of that too is that they are perplexed. They are not super-efficient. They stumble around and try to get something done. They are kind of pathetic. And I think we can all relate to that."
This human-robot bonding surely is most intense and complex for those who have been building and operating the machines. "Today our robot did surprisingly well and made it all the way past the dirt path, and it got to the door and at that moment, it was like, "Ah, our baby has grown up," said Tommy Hu, a member of Team HKU, which travelled all of the way from Hong Kong with their Atlas robot, which also is named Atlas. "That's kind of our perspective, but when we see other people's robots fall, it is sort of a feeling for another parent seeing their little baby fall."
Even those who have been in the robot business for a long time say they are surprised over and over by how exuberantly people respond to their mechanical creations. "It is funny to see how much people will cheer for robots," said Marc Oliver, Vice President of the Sarcos, a Salt Lake City robotics firm. "People want these robots to succeed. There probably is an attachment that is beyond comprehension."
It's a sense of attachment that the robotic objects of their feelings do not possess-for better and worse. "They can't feel the thrill of victory, but they can't feel the agony of defeat," said a visitor in the Grandstands during a morning run punctuated by gasps and moans for the robots that were falling down, left and right. For now, at least, joy and sorrow remains a human monopoly.