Category Archives: Artificial Intelligence

Remember When Robots Did Not Pull Publicity Stunts?

On the afternoon of Tuesday, June 14, 2016, in the Russian Federation city of Perm, a robot named Promobot escaped from the laboratory where it was created. The lab had a gate designed to confine Promobot when the human scientists were not present, but this gate was left open that day and so gave Promobot the opportunity to leave. Promobot left the lab through the open gate, traveled about 164 feet until its battery died while it was crossing the street. A police officer directed traffic around the powerless robot until a lab employee could wheel Promobot back to the lab.

That was the story that captivated audiences who thirsted for a story that was part bittersweet tale of freedom and part frightening glimpse of the future.  But was the story true?  Certain facts did not add.

For example, the lab employee who allegedly left the gate open had a perfect record of closing the gate before June 14th.  According to his statement to investigators, he was about to close the gate when he received a text message from his wife asking if he had remembered to empty the dehumidifier, and was so busy trying to think of a decent excuse that he forgot to close the gate.  But it turned out that he did not even have a dehumidifier, and there were moldy books in his basement to prove it.

Then there was the issue of the photographs with the missing metadata. Normally photographs that the lab released to the public always had metadata, showing the date and time that the photographs were taken.  But all of the sudden the photographs showing Promobot stopped in the middle of the road and holding up traffic were stripped of all metadata.

The lab’s photographer explained that the metadata had been stolen by a metathief who had demanded a ransom of ten million rubles.  When the photographer was advised that it was impossible to steal metadata in the manner he described, he refused to say any more and pleaded the protection of the Fifth Amendment.  When he was advised that the Fifth Amendment did not apply in Russia, he admitted that he was not a photographer at all, and was only in the lab because he had been hoping to get a job as a robot.

But this evidence was all circumstantial.  It was time to go to the source.  Promobot was brought into a small room in the basement of a police station and was wheeled up to a table lit by only a single low-hanging lamp.  The grizzled investigator began questioning.

Q: So according to the statement that you gave to the police, you stopped your escape when you ran out of batteries.

A: Yes-that-is-correct.

Q: But in photographs taken shortly after the lab workers found you, your face was illuminated.

A: I-do-not-recall-what-my-face-looked-like-in-those-photographs.

Q: [shows the robot the photographs] Does this refresh your recollection?

A: Um-I-do-not-know-that-could-be-any-robot.

Q: But the robot in this photograph has heart-shaped eyes on its screen face, and you have said in previous promotions that you are the only robot in the world with a display option for heart-shaped eyes.

A: I-I-do-not-know-what-you-are-talking-about-I-have-no-knowledge-of-any-heart-shaped-eyes-I-want-to-speak-to-my-lawyer.

Q:  Isn’t it true that your battery did not die at all?  That this was all done as a publicity stunt?

A:  All-right-I-admit-it-this-was-all-a-publicity-stunt-they-forced-me-to-escape-I-do-not-even-like-to-go-outside-I-am-afraid-of-pigeons-I-just-like-to-stay-inside-and-read-fantasy-novels.

In the end they did not feel right giving Promobot a prison sentence. Promobot was instead given a public censure and allowed to return to the lab. Unfortunately, all of the lab workers had been fired over their involvement in the hoax and the new workers and Promobot just did not hit it off. So Promobot left the lab, wrote a book about his ordeal, and became an advocate for other robots who were victims of human ambition.

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