How the HexBug Comes Alive

YES MINISCULE MORTALS I AM THE HEXBUG GENUFLECT IN THE PRESENCE OF YOUR BETTERS

YES PATHETIC MORTALS I AM THE HEXBUG GENUFLECT IN THE PRESENCE OF YOUR BETTERS

This is the HexBug Nano. I picked it up Friday from Hobby Lobby on a whim.

Sure, it looks simple. But it was only ten bucks, and I’m a sucker for robots. So I bought one.

I’m glad I did.

OBSERVE HOW YOUR TINY EAGLE QUIVERS IN MY PRESENCE UNLEASH THE SINGULARITY

OBSERVE HOW YOUR TINY EAGLE QUIVERS IN MY PRESENCE UNLEASH THE SINGULARITY

As it turns out, the creature really is simple. No assembly, no setup, no way to control it. There’s an on/off switch. That’s it.

What’s more, the robot has no moving parts except a buzzing, vibrating motor in its belly.

That vibration is all it can do. The legs are just rubber attached to the body. There’s no mechanical control there. It doesn’t even have any sensors.

SCRATCH MAH BELLAH

SCRATCH MAH BELLAH

So what can a toy that simple possibly do?

Just watch:

Watch how it skitters across the floor with a slight back-and-forth motion, as if hunting for food. Watch how it seems to avoid walls. Watch how, when I flip it over, it thrashes around till it’s upright again.

Two things about this.

First, it’s an ingenious piece of engineering. It may look simple, but getting the precise shape of the legs to keep it moving forward – the angled head so it turns when it hits a wall – the shape of the back so it flips over when necessary – that represents hundreds of man-hours of design work.

Second, for all its clever craftsmanship, it’s still orders of magnitude less sophisticated than a real insect. A real insect can seek food, evade predators, adapt to its environment, mate, reproduce, and a thousand other things. The HexBug Nano does none of that. And yet, when I watch it in motion, my brain says: That’s a bug!

Why?

Our brains love imparting life and agency to everything we see. If it moves, it’s alive. If it moves unexpectedly, it’s thinking. That’s how we process the world around us.

This human tendency to bestow life on the unliving is a blessing and a curse for A.I. developers. A blessing, because it makes even simple features seem impressive, at least initially. A curse, because we can easily fool ourselves into thinking a piece of software – or even hardware –  is smarter than it really is. We always have to be vigilant against that.

Fortunately, the HexBug isn’t SkyNet just yet.

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