Is the Boston Dynamics Dance Video Proof That Robots Have Soul(s)?
The elaborate four-robot dance to The Contours "Do You Love Me," showed off some impressive moves.
Legendary dancer and choreographer Martha Graham famously said that "dance is the hidden language of the soul."
If that's true, what does it say that the robots of Boston Dynamics just proved that they can dance better than most humans?
In a video posted to social media on Tuesday, a group of Boston Dynamics creations performed an elaborate choreographed dance to The Contours' 1962 Motown classic "Do You Love Me." The performers, by order of appearance, are two of the company's humanoid Atlas robots, one of their quadrupedal Spots, and a wheeled warehouse transport robot known as a Handle.
Together these four robots demonstrate their various rhythmic and acrobatic abilities. They move with genuine grace, performing their mechanized versions of the mashed potato, the twist, with various leaps and spins, touches of ballet, and even some lipless lip-synching.
Do You Love Me?www.youtube.com
Even without faces, their movements communicate clear emotions. Opening on one Atlas slumped in dismay, there is then a note of defiance as it points at the camera before the whole joyous routine kicks off.
Later, when Joe Billingslea's voice sings "little bit of soul now," Spot — looking swanlike with its grasping forelimb — does a four legged version of Swan Lake's iconic gliding spin on crossed tiptoes (not that it has toes…). In the background, the Atlases each extend a single leg in the balletic pose known as Attitude Devant.
So Boston Dynamics would seemingly have us believe that their robots not only have soul, but attitude as well. And, honestly, compared to The Contours original choreography — with three men inexplicably crammed together on a stage the size of a bathroom stall — the robots' sprawling performance is far more impressive.
Clearly the Google-owned robotics company feels that they have something worth showing off with this fleet of extremely versatile and delicately articulated machines. But does Boston Dynamic's latest demonstration indicate that there is something more human — more alive — about these mechanical creatures?
Obviously the real answer is no. As much as their movements feel — to an outside observer — like genuine, visceral responses to the music and expressions of human emotion, we know that it's a ruse.
There is no autonomy or intention behind any of these movements. Instead, there is a team of talented people directing the whole thing.
Whether the whole routine was preprogrammed or involved some amount of remote control — like the recent video of Baby Yoda bobbing along to Robert Rodriguez' guitar on the set of The Mandalorian — the robots were functioning merely as conduits to relay what people behind the scenes were truly expressing. Even if most of those behind-the-scenes people couldn't move half as well as Atlas.
Boston Dynamics robots can't "dance" anymore than Pixar's Wall-E and Eve could genuinely fall in love. In both cases what we're looking at is a very expensive and impressive form of animation expressing the animators' humanity — whether through cartoon robots, or the real thing.
And indeed, there are moments when it's hard not to believe that Boston Dynamic's video is itself CGI. Whether that's due to a subtle jerking stiffness beneath the automatons' apparent grace, or the way their smooth, clean curves catch the light a little too cleanly the video begins to feel unreal and slightly creepy — like the 2020 version of the dancing CG baby from the 90s.
But no, it's real. The inclusion of a masked man gazing upon the spectacle from a window above the dance floor brings us back to reality.
And are we merely imagining a haunting sense of foreboding that hangs over that man? Or is he — like us — being transported to an increasingly believable future, when the robots are no longer pantomiming emotion?
The humans are dead. (Extended)www.youtube.com
When they have finally achieved true awareness and feeling — hidden depths that must be expressed through dance. Perhaps even "souls."
Is he, like us, imagining that inevitable day when the robots — five or ten generations removed from these — will be dancing with equal joy upon our graves?
Just kidding. Cool robots, guys!