Wonderland Podcast with Steven Johnson: Episode 1

Babbage and the Dancer

Or, can you fall in love with a robot?

10 min read

An eight-year-old boy’s encounter with a robotic toy doll ends up changing the course of technological history. With special guests Ken Goldberg and Kate Darling, here’s a look at the uncanny world of emotional robotics. What if the dystopian future turns out to be one where the robots conquer humanity with their cuteness?

Hosted by Steven Johnson
Produced by Kristen Taylor
Audio engineering & music editing by Jason Oberholtzer
Theme music by Steven Johnson

Listen to the next episode: “32 Dots Per Spaceship (Or, the Video Game That Changed Tech History)

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STEVEN JOHNSON: We have a collection of stereotypes in our heads about what serious historical events are supposed to look like. Maybe it’s lawmakers gathered together to sign an important bill, or a riot in the streets, or an epic military battle, but sometimes history is transformed by a different kind of event. A moment of delight or amazement, far from the corridors of power. This is the story of one of those moments. It’s a story that revolves around a strange question. Can you fall in love with a robot?

I’m Steven Johnson, and this is “Wonderland.” “Wonderland” is brought to you by Microsoft and by Riverhead Books, the publisher of my new book, Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World.

Imagine it’s 1801, and you’re walking through the streets of London’s West End. The city is teeming with sidewalk buskers and locals enjoying a night out on the town, and everywhere you look there are amusements and mechanical delights, magic lanterns, spook shows, and 360-degree panorama paintings, and musicals performed by animated dolls. Walking through Hanover Square, you stumble across a door front with a tantalizing sign. Merlin’s Mechanical Museum. You step inside.

The Mechanical Museum is the creation of a brilliant showman and inventor, with really the perfect name. John Joseph Merlin. In modern terms. Merlin’s shop is a kind of hybrid between a science museum and a gaming arcade and a maker lab. You can marvel at the moving mechanical dolls called “automatons,” or try your luck at gambling machines, or listen to the sweet melodies of music boxes. But Merlin is also a mentor of sorts, encouraging what he calls, “The young amateurs of mechanism,” to try their own hands at invention. Merlin keeps two prize creations in his workshop, in the attic above the museum. Two miniature female automatons, no more than a foot or two tall. One creature walks across a four-foot space holding an eyeglass and bowing respectfully as she walks. The other is a dancer holding an animated bird.

One day in 1801, a mother brings her precocious eight-year-old son to visit Merlin’s museum. His name is Charles Babbage. The old showman senses something promising in the boy and offers to take him up to the attic, with his mom, to spark his curiosity even further. The boy is charmed by the walking lady, but it is the dancer that seduces him. Years later, he would write, “Her eyes were full of imagination, and irresistible.” Now this is one of those quiet turning points in history, a private moment that plants the seed of an idea in someone’s mind. The beginning of an obsession that decades later ends up changing the world.

Now, one of the reasons I’m obsessed with this story about Charles Babbage and this mechanical dancer is that, looking back, we can see it as a kind of preview of coming attractions. I mean, at the time, it seemed, literally, to be child’s play. An eight-year-old boy becoming obsessed with a toy doll. But here we are 200 years later, and the idea of developing an emotional connection to some mechanical device doesn’t seem all that childish.

Now, whenever I have a question about robotics or artificial intelligence, I always call my friend Ken Goldberg, who’s head of the robotics program at Berkeley. Ken’s kind of a figure like John Joseph Merlin. He’s a, he’s an artist, he’s actually got work in the permanent Whitney collection. But he’s also a brilliant engineer and he understands the state-of-the-art of robotics better than anyone I know, so I call him up and he invites me out to the robotics lab at Berkeley. But before we can sit down to have a proper conversation about the future of emotional robotics, he just has to show me the latest addition to the lab.

KEN GOLDBERG: This is an elegant, it’s just got beautiful proportions. It’s like, it’s like a sports car, right? It just has this, it looks human, you know, a human form, but it’s not overly human.


KEN GOLDBERG: Clearly it’s a robot. There’s no head on it or anything.


KEN GOLDBERG: But the arms, the, the proportions, the curves. I mean it’s a, it’s very sexy.

STEVEN JOHNSON: I should probably mention at this point that the “robot” that Ken and his team were so in love with was actually just two mechanical arms stacking a series of paper cups on top of each other. So imagine how hard they would have fallen for an animated dancer holding a bird. And actually, when we went back to Ken’s office later, I asked him about Babbage’s obsession with that toy doll.

KEN GOLDBERG: I mean, I think that continues, it’s still very much alive and it happens every day, around the world, when kids encounter some kind of robot that does something that they, they just can’t stop, you know, thinking about.


KEN GOLDBERG: And that’s why, you know, I sometimes say robots are the gateway drug for interest in science, technology, engineering, and math, because that, you know, you can show them screens, and they can watch videos and things, but then when they see something moving, it has a whole different effect.


KEN GOLDBERG: It seems to connect to a different part of our cognitive wiring. Now, it’s also interesting that we anthropomorphize many things, right? From images of the, you know, Man in the Moon to, you know, dolls, to, we can pick up almost anything and turn it into something with a good imagination. It’s interesting when something meets us halfway, right? And starts to actually become animated.

KATE DARLING: The, the most fascinating thing to me about this is that even if you’re not confused, even if you understand as a child or as an adult exactly how the robot works, you still perceive it as lifelike. That is just incredible to me.

STEVEN JOHNSON: That’s Kate Darling, research fellow at MIT’s Media Lab. Kate’s an expert in the legal and ethical implications of emotional robotics.

KATE DARLING: We’ve always had this incredible fascination with technology that’s built in our likeness. We might also be primed through science fiction and pop culture nowadays to have this fascination with robots, but I honestly think that it’s much deeper than that. I think it’s biological. There is some evidence that our brains are biologically hard-wired to perceive robots as something that’s sort of alive, because robots move around in a way where it, we can’t quite anticipate where the movement is going next, and so it seems autonomous to us and we will project intent onto that. And that just opens up all sorts of possibilities for imagination and projection of ourselves onto these things.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Babbage went on, as a young man, to have a growing obsession with the power of mechanization. He wrote an extensive survey of the new machines of the Industrial Revolution that actually had a major impact on Karl Marx’s thinking 20 years later. But in the 1820s, he began sketching out ideas and actually building working prototypes for two machines. First, the Difference Engine, and then the more ambitious Analytical Engine, now considered the first programmable computers ever built, a hundred years before anyone else began to think about building equivalent machines. And it all began in that moment of delight and wonder in Merlin’s Mechanical Museum.

So the question I have is: what’s the equivalent of that moment today? What kinds of relationships are we going to have with our machines that inspire us and maybe even terrify us the way that Babbage was so mesmerized by that dancer 200 years ago? I asked Kate and Ken what they thought the next breakthrough in emotional robotics was going to be.

KEN GOLDBERG: Well, I don’t think, I think it’s not going to be visual. I think you’re going to have it in an audio form. Auditory. That, going back to, you know, how, in 2001, there’s no visual reference there. It’s just a voice.

STEVEN JOHNSON: A blinking light.

KEN GOLDBERG: Yeah, the blinking light, exactly. But the, the example of Siri, to some degree, is appealing. Alexa and Echo is much more appealing, she has a great personality, I have to say, I don’t know exactly what they did to pull that off, but she just feels like someone you want to have around. You know, Her was the classic”¦.


KEN GOLDBERG: Spike Jonze, yeah, that is, to my mind, very, very compelling and I think within reach. There’s probably people who could, could have that kind of relationship with the next version of Alexa.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Yeah, because what we haven’t, I mean, as interesting as Siri and Alexa and Echo are, we haven’t yet crossed over to the point where the AI really is evolving a specific relationship to us as a person. Right? They’re not, it’s still preprogrammed on some level, it’s just very cleverly preprogrammed, and it’s amazing that we can talk and they will be able to answer”¦

KEN GOLDBERG: Right, but it’s not saying, “Hello, Steven, you sound a little down today,” which it absolutely can do.

STEVEN JOHNSON: And that the sense that you would build up a relationship over a year, say, with this bot slash AI, whatever you want to call it, where, by that point, after that year of interaction, that artificial intelligence has a unique relationship to you and you alone.


STEVEN JOHNSON: I think that will feel very profound to people.

KEN GOLDBERG: I agree. I mean, I think it’s the ultimate sticky app, right? You won’t want to change over when the new model comes out because you have this whole, this relationship built up and people will be very loyal. I think you’ll see that. Right now, detecting emotion from facial expressions and other things is very, very hard. But detecting from voice; it’s known that you can actually pick up pitch changes and you can tell when someone is feeling depressed.


KEN GOLDBERG: In the auditory realm, there’s a huge amount you could pick up. Someone’s tired, their speech is a little slurred, right? For the car, that’s going to be the best way to tell if someone is, you know, not equipped to drive, right? You know, breathalyzers are notoriously unreliable, but something that you just talked to for a little bit and it will say, you know, “I’m just thinking maybe you should pull over, let me take over.” But you know, that, then I think you’re right about, once it starts to know patterns of, what kind of, specifically what moods you’re in, music you like, things you’ve done, when you came home, when you got up, all those things. That’s going to be very, very valuable.

STEVEN JOHNSON: Earlier this year, the robotics company Boston Dynamics released this promotional video of their new humanoid robot Atlas. You’ve probably seen this video, it’s been viewed like 18 million times, and I think its success tells us something about the strange reaction that humans have to life-like machines. In the video, Atlas is just dutifully trying to pick up a box and this guy keeps poking at him with a hockey stick, trying to knock him over. I think the video was intended to showcase how resilient the robot was, but it’s almost impossible not to feel bad for the robot. One headline described the human “bullying” the machine, but how can you bully something that isn’t sentient?

KATE DARLING: There was actually this other example, same company, where they had a robot that was very dog-inspired and its name was Spot, and in that one they kick the dog robot, and people got super upset about that, and it got to the point where PETA, the animal rights organization, was getting so many phonecalls that they finally had to issue a press statement and be like, “Hey guys, we don’t actually care about this because it’s not a real animal.” It’s hard to not project violence onto that image of this robot dog being kicked, or this humanoid robot, Atlas, just trying to carry a box across the room and being thwarted and pushed over at every step of the way. It’s really hard to not see ourselves in that.

The same way it bothers us to see animals mistreated, it bothers us to see robots mistreated, and it bothers us more to see a robot mistreated than a blender. And I think that’s going to impact how we use the technology, and ultimately perhaps even how we regulate the technology. I think the biggest mistake that people make when thinking about this is that they think that one-way relationships aren’t relationships, and that’s absolutely untrue, I mean, even some of our human relationships, let’s face it, can be very one-sided. But people love their cats and even though it’s not clear whether their cats actually love them back, there are all sorts of relationships we develop with things that are very one-sided, where we’re getting something out of the relationship despite the fact that it’s not, you know, authentically reciprocated our feelings.

STEVEN JOHNSON: It would be funny if the big threat and challenge to society that the robots eventually posed was not the kind of Terminator scenario, where they decide to kill us all, but we fall in love with them and develop these really unsustainable one, one-dimensional emotional attachments.

KATE DARLING: It’s true. They’re going to kill us with their cuteness.

STEVEN JOHNSON: I’ve always been interested in the story of Babbage and the dancer in terms of our technological history, and, and maybe our technological future. But lately, I’ve been thinking about the story more and more as a parent. I think many of us have these moments from our childhood where you experience something for the first time and it triggers this feeling of delight and wonder, and then you wake up 30 years later and that thing has turned into your career. I asked Kate Darling if she had an experience like that that got her interested in robotics for the first time.

KATE DARLING: I, I do have a story, but I was not a child. I was in my twenties. Yeah, I, so I bought a Pleo, which is a baby dinosaur robot. It’s a really cool piece of technology, and it has all these touch sensors in it and it’ll know when it’s upside down because it has a tilt sensor. So if you hold it up by the tail, it’ll start crying. It’s really adorable, and I was fascinated by it because of all of the cameras and microphones and things it had in it, because it was a really expensive toy at the time, and I showed it off to my friends and was like, “Oh, hold it up by the tail, see what it does!” And then after a while, I realized that it was starting to bother me, when the Pleo cried, and I would put it down and I would tell them “OK, that’s enough now,” and then I would pet it to make it stop crying and it was such an aha moment for me because I’m not very maternal, and, and I knew how this robot worked and the fact that I was letting the crying get to me, that really, wow, there’s, there’s something going on here that needs to be researched. And then I realized that there is all of this research in human-robot interaction, but not as many people thinking about kind of the societal effects of that. And so I completely switched careers, eventually, after becoming so fascinated by this toy.

STEVEN JOHNSON: What, where’s the toy now? Do I dare ask?

KATE DARLING: Oh, I still have it. It’s, so the, my first Pleo is broken, it no longer works, but I’ve always held onto it.

STEVEN JOHNSON: There’s a great symmetry to the story of Babbage and his dancer. Merlin, sadly, didn’t live to see the impact that he had on the history of invention. He died just two years after Babbage’s visit and all of his equipment, including the walking lady and the animated dancer, were sold to a rival named Thomas Weeks. Weeks never put the dancer on display, he just kept it in a warehouse for almost 30 years until he died and all of his equipment was then put up for auction. And somehow, Charles Babbage found his way to that auction and purchased the dancer, brought it back home to his London townhouse, and installed it in his drawing room, right next to a prototype of his Difference Engine.

I like to imagine those dinner parties at Babbage’s, with all the London elites and the scientists and intellectuals gathered together in his drawing room, looking at really one of the most important inventions of the 19th century, really one of the great conceptual leaps of all time. And right next to it, the toy that first sparked that imagination.



Listen to the next episode: “32 Dots Per Spaceship (Or, the Video Game That Changed Tech History)

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How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. Wonderland is a ten-part podcast series from Steven Johnson about the past and future of play and innovation. Featuring conversations about creativity and invention with leading contemporary scientists, programmers, musicians, and more, the show is brought to you by Microsoft, and by Riverhead Books.

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