Why the Internet Is Feeling Sorry for a Robot: 'Screaming and Panic'

Internet users have been feeling sorry for a worker ordered to clean up liquid while people just stand and watch, which is slightly odd as the worker is a robot.

Five years after it was made, the robot is evoking questions about just how much we should be humanizing AI, and at what point does it become dangerous?

Videos of Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu's 2016 art installation "Can't Help Myself" have been going viral online, five years after the Guggenheim commissioned the work.

The installation features an industrial robot with a visual-recognition sensor, programmed to shovel liquid that spills from it back to the center automatically. It spends its time in a cycle of frantically containing a red blood-like liquid in a predetermined area around it. The second the liquid spills past a point, the robot sweeps it back, despite having done the same just moments earlier.

Surrounded by four acrylic walls, the installation invites visitors to watch the robot's desperate attempt to clean the space, using moves programmed into it. Sun Yuan and Peng Yu designed 32 movements for the machine, including the "scratch an itch," "bow and shake" and "ass shake."

In recent weeks, videos of the robot have been gaining views in the millions and prompting all sorts of emotions from a predominantly young audience on TikTok. Some clips are edited with sad music and overlaid with black and white filters, as if it's a movie character or celebrity.

One video has over 6 million likes, which to the tune of "Exit Music" by Radiohead, compares footage of the art installation in 2016, to more recent footage. The 2016 footage shows a far more animated movement, while the later one shows a rusted, slower machine, still desperately attempting to clean.

Despite the original meaning of the piece being a take on migration and global borders, with the bloodstain-like marks representing the "violence that results from surveilling and guarding border zones," according to the Guggenheim, TikTok has found its own take on it all. The piece intended to draw attention to the increasing use of technology to "monitor our environment," but TikTok users see it for its apparent message of mentally burning out and becoming exhausted.

"I know it's not a real thing with emotions but it hurts," commented one TikTok user.

"It looks like it's being overwhelmed by the fact it can't clean or fix it," wrote another.

@yuukibblu

Can’t Help Myself (2016) by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu #fyp #art #foryou #اكسبلور

♬ wicked games -

One popular video of the machine claims that "the machine look[ed] so much happier keeping up with all the liquid, now it looks tired. He looks tired. He looks like he is ready to give up."

"They literally programmed this robot to have a simple task to clean up the mess and the fact that it can't clean up the mess makes me sad," reads one comment.

"The sound of the rusty metal screeching sounds a lot like screaming and panic," wrote one TikTok user.

Some users even claimed the robot "died" after giving up in 2019, but the piece actually was shown at the 2019 Venice Art Biennale working properly. Newswek has contacted the Guggenheim for updated information on the installation.

TikTok's humane reaction to the robot is far from anything new. Feeling emotive responses to AI is something Hollywood even has an obsession with. Movies like Her even went as far as capturing a human-AI love story.

"This robot cannot feel any sorrow, yet we as humans feel sorry for it. Is this one of our biggest weaknesses?" asked one TikTok user.

Human Empathy for Robots

Researchers at the University of Duisburg Essen in Germany essentially proved that people feel a similar kind of empathy towards AI as the do toward humans, in a 2013 study.

Fourteen participants were shown videos of humans, robots and inanimate objects being treated affectionately or harshly. When participants were shown clips of robots petted, tickled and fed, areas in their limbic structures—the part of the brain thought to deal with emotional responses—were activated in a similar way to videos of humans getting massages.

The same thing happened when participants saw videos of the robots being shaken and dropped, but at a lower rate than when they saw humans being treated poorly. Ultimately, the research found humans feel a similar sense of empathy toward robots, but not quite as much as we do toward fellow humans.

Many psychologists believe this empathy is rooted in the "human-like" features of robots—we're far more likely to pity WALL-E than we are a digital camera.

With a moving body and swooping animated movements emulating a human "ass shake," it's unsurprising TikTokers are feeling so sorry for a simple rusty robot.

Newsweek has contacted Sun Yuan and Peng Yu for comment.

Can't Help Myself robot art
A general view shows "Can't Help Myself", a large-scale installation featuring a robotic arm by Chinese artists Sun Yuan and Peng Yu during a press preview ahead of the opening of the 58th International Venice Biennale art exhibition on May 7, 2019, in Venice. Getty Images