1955: Robots

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Don't be nervous about the robots, be nervous about the people with the resources to build them.
Title text: Don't be nervous about the robots, be nervous about the people with the resources to build them.


This comic refers to a YouTube video posted one day earlier by robotics company Boston Dynamics. The video shows a quadruped robot with a roughly canine form approach a door, then stop and 'look' to the side where a second robot appears, which has an articulated arm attachment on top. This robot sizes up the door, then uses its arm to grasp the handle and open the door. It holds the door open for the first robot, then follows it through the doorway.

The video was extremely popular, receiving over four million views in the first day. Many social media comments joked that humanity is doomed, as the robots we are developing will soon become capable enough to rise up and overthrow us. This is a common jest or anxiety expressed when robots manage to master a task that previously had given them difficulty. It is especially appropriate here, since the ability to open doors is extremely useful when dealing with humans. Randall has previously made the point that a robot uprising would promptly fail because most robots couldn't successfully open doors (or even successfully negotiate thresholds, in some cases). This latest advance seems to specifically undercut that assurance.

After Cueball sees this video, he reiterates the same line by saying that we're definitely going to die. Megan, however, offers an alternative view: that in fact, due to human nature, it is the robots that are in mortal peril from this technological development, not humans, since humans tend to respond aggressively to potential threats.

Taking Megan's point, Cueball sarcastically suggests that humans don't tend to overreact violently to perceived threats, to which Megan replies, equally sarcastically, that she must be thinking of another species.

The title text may refer to the Mad Scientist or Evil Genius tropes in science fiction, where someone builds an army of robots with the intent of using them to take over the world. Alternatively, the title text could refer to the real life phenomena of military programs expending enormous resources to develop unmanned offensive capabilities, such as the Predator drone and SWORDS mobile weapon platform. In the latter context, it may be sensible to show concern with the methods, reasoning, motivations, and long-term stability of people directing the development of potentially lethal robots. Boston Dynamics is one of the foremost innovators in the field of military-grade automation.


[Cueball is sitting at his desk in an office chair pointing to his laptop while looking back over his shoulder talking to Megan off-panel.]
Cueball: Did you see this Boston Dynamics robot video?
Cueball: We're definitely all gonna die.
[Megan walks in to the panel towards Cueball who still looks at her, but stops pointing.]
Megan: You know, it's funny.
Megan: Humans see a robot open a door, and we all instantly assume we're in mortal peril.
[Zoom in on the heads of Megan and Cueball, both now looking at the off-panel screen.]
Megan: So doesn't it make more sense to say the robots are all gonna die?
Cueball: Violently overreacting to a perceived threat? That doesn't sound like humans.
Megan: Yeah, I must be thinking of some other species.


Possibly coincidentally, approximately seven weeks before this video and strip, the series "Black Mirror" released an episode entitled "Metalhead". The episode set in a post-apocalyptic world where humans are hunted by robots highly reminiscent of this line of Boston Dynamics robots. Clearly, the concept of these robots becoming a threat isn't unique to XKCD.

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The door handle is a lever, which is relatively easy to open. A doorknob would be harder. The Dining Logician (talk) 06:04, 14 February 2018 (UTC)

Apparently, a lot of the YouTube comments reference "black mirror" a lot. Can someone explain this to someone out of the loop? 06:22, 14 February 2018 (UTC)Jury76

Black Mirror is a British science fiction anthology television series created by Charlie Brooker, with Brooker and Annabel Jones serving as the programme showrunners. It examines modern society, particularly with regard to the unanticipated consequences of new technologies. Episodes are standalone, usually set in an alternative present or the near future, often with a dark and satirical tone, though some are more experimental and lighter. Elektrizikekswerk (talk) 08:26, 14 February 2018 (UTC)
refering to this episode: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metalhead_(Black_Mirror) 08:57, 14 February 2018 (UTC)

Added a (very basic) explanation of the comic. Herobrine (talk) 07:27, 14 February 2018 (UTC)

I don't think that the title text is a trope reference. If robots are, indeed, a threat, it will be because various corporate teams have spent a lot of money to develop and build them. Basically, the only mad scientist with the resources to do this would be Elon Musk, who is clearly on record with his concerns about such a possibility. Schnitz (talk) 19:26, 14 February 2018 (UTC)

Why does the last panel start with "So"? It that some American grammar thing? 20:36, 14 February 2018 (UTC)

So why do you suggest this is American? (See what I did there?) Anyway, read more on this usage here: http://www.dictionary.com/e/sentence-initial-so/
It goes into detail on the many ways "so" is used to start a sentence. Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 22:18, 14 February 2018 (UTC)
So "so-so" so describes the American Randall's grammar. (See what I did there? Answered your question, of course.) 08:21, 15 February 2018 (UTC)
I think I answered yours too - I don't believe that usage is limited to American english, even though Randall is indeed American. (Note: moved 2nd half of my earlier post above your reply.) Ianrbibtitlht (talk) 18:16, 15 February 2018 (UTC)
I don't think any thing in that article describes Randall's "so". This use of "so" is as a perfectly normal coordinating conjunction meaning "For that reason". This is grammatical everywhere English is used. Some people might object to starting a sentence with a conjunction. But that would be prissy. And they would not have a leg to stand on. 18:30, 16 February 2018 (UTC)

One of my favourite cartoons: "Knowing how it could change the lives of canines everywhere, the dog scientists struggled diligently to understand the Doorknob Principle." -- _The Far Side_ 05:42, 15 February 2018 (UTC) Gene Wirchenko [email protected]

When seeing the moment where the dog-bot opens the door, somehow I can't help but think of the scene in the 2005 Doctor Who reboot where Christopher Eccleston's Doctor and Rose are facing the Daleks for the first time, and they go up the stairs. The lack of Daleks' ability to navigate stairs was a longstanding joke in the original series. Then, the Dalek says "ELEVATE!" and the pursuit resumes... 11:46, 16 February 2018 (UTC)

That's only a joke among people who weren't fans of the series, and only familiar with it through general pop-culture osmosis. Actual fans of the series will know that Daleks were able to fly back in the 1980s. It was only their original incarnation when they first appeared back in their very first episode that had serious mobility limitations. (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)
It's still a good joke. It's a rare case of a character becoming Genre Savvy (smart as Rose is, she doesn't specifically go looking for stairs to defeat the 'clearly' stair-incapable Dalek, but sees the possibility where many a horror-movie character would not and make the mistake of cowering in a wheelchair-accessible cupboard or something), but of course is as unaware that it is Wrong Genre Savvy as she (like most of the pick-up audience of the reboot, and many of the more casual/part-aware returning fans) has not yet seen the full capabilities. (Although flight, and even full on teleportation, is almost de rigeur by the time of Fourteen's tenure. Even the large swathe of humans, from whom both Companions and "whoops, I'm somehow involved in this one adventure" characters get drawn, seem to have forgotten/overlooked the countless prior Dalek invasions of Earth London and/or Provinces seem to be far less surprised at flying Daleks than of there being Daleks at all in the first place... 10:38, 30 June 2022 (UTC)

This article is completely incorrect. The title text points out that the people that have the ability to build the robots are the ones who we should be worried about. It's not about "tropes" in "science fiction". In reality the people funding the development of super AI are large corporations and governments. This is a statement about being cautious about the people who hold the power, not the robots themselves. This is the same point Elon Musk and others involved in and worried about AI have made. 23:50, 16 February 2018 (UTC)

Is there any reason to think that Cueball is being sarcastic when he says 'that doesn't sound like humans'? It seems like exactly the kind of thing he'd say sincerely. 06:12, 30 June 2022 (UTC)

I have half a mind to erase the part about mad scientists and evil geniuses, because that's clearly not what Randall is worried about. The problem is that governments and billionaires have the resources and incentive to create large robot armies with which they can control the population, making rebellion a nigh impossibility and thus destroying our freedom. They could turn the rest of humanity into slaves and we would lack the resources to resist. Claiming that the title text is a reference to tropes in popular fiction makes light of this very serious concern. Kapten-N (talk) 12:36, 5 March 2024 (UTC)