Amie’s gifts as a dancer ended up expanding the vision for M3GAN’s movement throughout the film. “There was a moment where we wanted her to rise up from the ground like a cobra, without using her hands,” Johnstone said. “The stunt guys were all ready to rig that up. Then we get this video from Amie’s mom, of Amie doing it on her own, after four minutes’ practice.” Johnstone took to calling Amie “the machine” — a human machine, playing a machine trying to be a human.
People are finely attuned to the movements of dancing robots, real or fictional, because we are kinetic empathizers: The way we move in relation to each other is part of how we form bonds. “One of the first things humans notice about robots is how they move,” the choreographer and roboticist Catie Cuan wrote in Scientific American. But real robots have not been very good at humanlike movement until relatively recently, because the complexities of humanlike movement, especially dance, pose a colossal programming challenge.
“A couple seconds of a robot dancing requires hundreds of hours of engineering,” Skybetter said, and when we see it, “I think we register, on some level, that complexity.” That’s where fear may begin to seep in: A dancing robot can be entertaining, but it is also a demonstration of how advanced these machines have become.
We also tend to think of dancing as a uniquely human phenomenon. When something inhuman dances — especially something as opaque, to most of us, as a robot — our empathy wires can get crossed. “Robots that dance, these are haunted and haunting contrivances,” Skybetter said. “They are spooky because they move in ways we understand they shouldn’t. Also, apparently, they can murder people.”
The killer-robot fears that animate so much science fiction aren’t unfounded. In recent years, the accelerated development of drones and bombs that can decide, without human input, whether to attack targets has prompted significant anxiety and backlash. Though Boston Dynamics has pledged not to weaponize its robots, it has longstanding ties to the military; the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was an early funder.
Skybetter, who works with Spot robots at Brown, noted that the Boston Dynamics robots are networked: When you teach one of them to dance, you are actually teaching all of them to dance. Those advanced mobility techniques could then be deployed by other robot owners in unknowable and potentially violent ways. “What robots do here,” he said, “is introduce an entirely different ethical continuum and time scale to what it means to be a choreographer.”