The Russian-made Promobot first popped up in headlines last year when it reportedly ran away from its robotics research facility. The clumsy, unwieldy robot blocked traffic until its battery died and its owners were able to retrieve it. The next month, the robot allegedly attempted to escape again, prompting calls for its disposal. Its makers must have found its unappealing, dead-eyed face too cute for the trash heap, because Promobot survived and was spotted on the lam once again a few months later at a political rally. Those Russian robotics engineers need to learn how to build a better door. Just this week, everyone’s favorite robotic rapscallion is back in the headlines, and this time it seems like he’s had a PR makeover.
The story began when Russian news outlet 360 TV published a video of Promobot in which the robot appears to save a young girl without any human intervention. In the clip, the girl plays unattended at the base of a staircase near a display booth which was waiting to be set up in a roped-off section of some sort of lobby. The girl approaches a metal bookcase stacked with boxes and begins to climb, at which point the robot raises an arm to catch the falling case.
Promobot’s makers, Omi Robotics, claim the robot acted autonomously while in “mirror” mode, a setting which enables it to emulate human actions. However, the video contains several red herrings which point to this being nothing but yet another Omi Robotics PR stunt like the robot's many “escapes” last year. Many outlets have noted that the boxes on the shelves appear to bounce as if empty, and the placement of the shelf itself is a bit odd.
When I watched the video, the first thing I noticed is how many of the “bystanders” appear to look at the camera at one point or another. In particular, one woman descends the staircase shortly before the girl climbs the shelf. She steps off the staircase and appears to look at the camera before waving her umbrella towards the girl. The woman then glances at the robot and then the girl before walking back down another set of stars. The girl seems to wait by a column until the moment the woman waves her umbrella. To me, the woman is clearly the girl’s handler and was signaling her to begin climbing. Furthermore, the girl appears to actively try to pull the bookcase down on her rather than simply climbing. Most telling of all is the fact that the robot begins raising its arm to catch the case before it actually starts falling. Maybe they should rename it Precogbot.
Who knows, though. Maybe Promobot’s just jealous; an artificial intelligence actually saved a human life last year by re-diagnosing a patient who had been misdiagnosed by human physicians, and a self-driving Tesla drove its unconscious driver to a hospital after detecting he was unresponsive, saving his life following a cardiac event. Try harder, Promobot. Next time fill those cardboard boxes with used AIDS syringes and bowling balls and then set the bookcase on fire. Then I’ll be impressed.