Terrifying Real-Life Robots

In 2017, hundreds of artificial intelligence experts warned world leaders against the development of "killer robots" that can autonomously decide who to kill and who to spare. In 2014, an open letter advising AI developers to tread carefully and always consider humanity's best interests was signed by such notables as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk. The Terminator franchise, HBO's Westworld, and countless other works of dystopian sci-fi have tried to warn us, but we just keep poking at that mechanical hornet's nest, don't we? Granted, a lot of cutting-edge robots have potentially revolutionary applications — and fine, maybe they're not all harboring violently hostile feelings toward their weak, fleshy masters. Maybe. Paranoid hysteria aside, some just look and sound and act in a way that gives us a terminal case of the yips. 

Still, locking your doors and unplugging all your appliances couldn't hurt if you plan to read on, at least until they figure out a way around those problems too. And if you've ever regarded your toaster with unease and suspicion or just found it difficult to get through The Polar Express without shuddering, don't plan on sleeping tonight after learning about these real-life robots that are absolutely terrifying.

'Female Figure' is what nightmares are made of

Brought to us by artist Jordan Wolfson, this unholy abomination is a sophisticated, life-size animatronic sculpture of a blonde woman in a white dress and a witch/goblin/bird mask that's been smeared with dirt and programmed to dance to pop songs in front of a mirror. She even speaks, sort of, randomly reciting delightful pieces of dialogue recorded by Wolfson himself like "I'm getting old, I'm getting fat, I don't believe in God" and other catchy numbers. She's also equipped with special facial recognition software, allowing her to make uncomfortable eye contact with passersby.

This thing stands apart from most of the other monstrous creations mentioned here in a few ways —mainly in that it was specifically designed to be disturbing. Unveiled at L.A's Broad museum in 2014 for everyone to, uh, enjoy, "Female Figure" intends to subvert our expectations of titillation, according to an interview Wolfson gave The Los Angeles Times, and to confront and disrupt objectifying impulses by making onlookers feel uneasy. Success!

The very aptly named 'Super Monster Wolf'

Wolves were hunted and eradicated in Japan in the 1800s, and now parts of the country are overrun with wild boar and deer that roam freely. Which is great and all, but these animals love to eat farmers' rice and chestnut crops. A debate over whether or not to reintroduce wolves to help control and diversify the wildlife population and protect the crops is ongoing, but in the meantime, Super Monster Wolf has got things more or less covered.

This solar-powered mechanical demon is covered in fur, has flashing red eyes and wears a permanent, horrifying snarl. It doesn't move its legs, but it can swivel its head around and emits a frightening howl when crop-thieving animals are near. It can also emit the sound of gunfire and even a human voice, just to keep things interesting. The product was recently introduced on a trial basis in Kisarazu, where it was a resounding success, and it's about to go into mass production. No word yet on whether or not its ultimate purpose is to learn how to walk and eventually seek bloody retribution for its fallen wolf brethren of yore, but watch this space.

If you're in the market for one of these puppies, the it'll cost you around $4,840, and probably eternal servitude to some dark lord or another.

'Sophia,' queen of the uncanny valley

You might be familiar with the Uncanny Valley, a concept that refers to humanoid objects that come across as undeniably human in some respects but also unsettlingly...not. Well, if the Uncanny Valley was a real place you could actually visit, Sophia the robot's vacant visage would probably be on the brochure.

Sophia has become pretty well known over the years as far as weird soulless humanoid things go, unintentionally creeping people out on chat shows, giving speeches, and even becoming a citizen of Saudi Arabia in 2017. Her face was modeled on Audrey Hepburn, her skin is eerily realistic, if a bit rubbery, and she's capable of over 60 facial expressions. Or at least creepy approximations of them.

Her creator, Dr. David Hanson of Hanson Robotics, believes (via BBC) that the potential for a real emotional connection with Sophia is vast, and expects that she and others like her will have legitimate applications in the schools and workplaces of the near future. And who knows, maybe she will. For now, though — when she's not (probably) secretly plotting our demise — she seems content to just creep out anyone who interacts with her with her clumsily timed responses, unnaturally jerky facial movements, and that blank, lifeless stare. Oh, and they recently gave her a pair of working legs. God help us all.

'CB2,' a face even a mother couldn't love

Straight from a Ringu-induced fever dream, CB2 is about four foot three, weighs about 73 pounds, and has the "mind" of a toddler. It's a biomimetic robot, according to CNet, which means it responds to the sounds, touches and facial expressions of humans, and mimics and learns from them. The idea is to teach us more about child development — and, apparently, leave us traumatized in the process.

CB2 was unveiled in 2007, then resurfaced in 2009 as a more advanced machine, having developed some basic social skills through its interactions with humans and even categorizing various experiences into different "emotions" on its circuit board. It could also move around a room more efficiently. Word has been fairly quiet on the CB2 front in recent years, so it might have just learned to blend in with the rest of us at some point. Don't say we didn't warn you.

This creepy carpet crawler

Here's another creepy babybot — significantly less advanced than CB2, but it should have you running for the holy water all the same. Looking like some kind of rejected Silent Hill creature from the future, it was built as part of an experiment to demonstrate just how much germs and debris can be stirred up by a child crawling on carpet, and to examine how this might affect their immune system. This legless, nameless, foil-wrapped little devil is attached to a series of cords, it scurries along carpets taken from actual homes, and the microscopic particles sent flying into the air are made visible by a laser device and collected in filters for later study.

So it's harmless, in theory, and thankfully its limited design and purpose doesn't allow much room for thoughts of violent rebellion against its puny human overseers. That said, as soon as it breaks free from those cords, all bets are off.

The robotic human mouth from hell

Developed by the Sawada Group at Kagawa University in Japan, this a robotic version of the human mouth made out of different kinds of silicone blended together. To produce speech, or whatever that sound is, air is sent from a pump through a vibrating section modeled after vocal chords. Then the volume of air in different sections of the tube is manipulated mechanically and words are formed. There's a nose made out of plaster sitting on top, which helps to produce "m" and "n" sounds, and a silicone tongue sits inside the mouth to complete this bizarre picture and to take care of the "r" sounds.

But there's more to this rubbery horror than meets the eye. It doesn't just flap and moan about mindlessly when someone decides to manipulate it: According to Hideyuki Sawadi, one of the professors responsible for bringing this nightmare into the world, it listens to the sounds it makes through a microphone, then determines what it should do to sound more human. And when it hears a sound it doesn't know, it can approximate the movements needed to reproduce that sound.

The plan is to arm it with a set of teeth to help produce those "t" and "s" sounds, so it should be able to vocalize "please kill me" any day now, and we can finally put it out of its misery.

The robot dogs that inspired a post-apocalyptic Black Mirror episode

Developed by Boston Dynamics for military use, BigDog has been around for a while now and seems to get more indestructible and terrifying every year. It can run at 10 kmh across most imaginable terrain, it can ascend slopes up to 35 degrees, and it can carry loads weighing up to 150kg. In 2013, it was given an extra arm, allowing it to powerfully and accurately throw cinder blocks at you. The company unveiled a smaller dog in early 2018 called SpotMini, which seems kind of cute until you see it open a door with its weird mechanical arm and you consider just how efficiently it could murder us all.

Boston Dynamics' creations — their dogs in particular — have tapped into people's inherent fear of impending Skynet-esque pandemonium more than probably any other contemporary robotics company. Look no further than the Black Mirror episode "Metalhead" and its characteristically bleak take on the whole thing; if you've ever wondered what life would be like if these robodogs collectively decided to turn on their makers and hunt down every last morsel of humanity (and who hasn't), it should be right up your alley.

In "Metalhead," a murderous robot dog pursues one of the last remaining humans across a desolate landscape in a post-apocalyptic future. It's not exactly a barrel of sunshine. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker revealed that the episode was directly inspired by these Boston Dynamics dogs, and he was specifically struck by how "there's something very creepy watching them where they get knocked over, and they look sort of pathetic laying there, but then they slowly manage to get back up." You and us both, Charlie.

'BionicWheelBot,' a spiderbot based on a real-life cartwheeling arachnid

Of the numerous spiderbots in development right now, few feel quite as menacing as BionicWheelBot. That's largely because this eight-legged freak is based on the flic-flac spider, a particularly strange real-life eight-legged freak that lives in the Sahara and cartwheels and flips away from its prey with surprising dexterity (arachnophobes might want to tread carefully here). Not that being extra cautious would make all that much difference — if this thing really wanted to come after you it probably (read: definitely) could do so without too much trouble.

Developed by German automation company Festo, this creepy ro-beast has eight articulated legs, just like its organic brethren, which allow it to travel over difficult terrain with relative ease — and on flat surfaces, it tucks in a few of these legs and transforms itself into a wheel capable of moving at pretty high speeds. As The Verge reports, an internal sensor lets it know what position it's in, and when it should stop and start when rolling, so you're probably not going to be able to trap it in a giant mug and toss it out the window with much success.

It doesn't have any real-world applications just yet, but it's not hard to imagine what it might be capable of. Why it has to look so evil is less easy to understand. Would it kill them to slap a pair of googly eyes on there or something?

'Alter,' no humans required

Before any respectable machine takeover can really pick up steam, developing robots that can move by themselves needs to be a priority. There've been plenty of advances, but the gulf between pre-programmed commands and autonomous movement is still fairly sizable, and "Alter" attempts to bridge this gap in a more comprehensive and ominous manner than most.

Hailing from Japan, Alter is a robot powered by a neural network, meaning it moves without human interference and responds to environmental inputs like humidity, temperature, proximity and sound. This neural network allows for a couple of different modes — one for sustained movement, and one that's more random, referred to as a "chaos" mode. Which is reassuring. It takes in what's going on around it through sensors that act like a rudimentary version of human skin. It doesn't really move like a human, but to see it do its thing does leave the unshakeable impression that you're watching something very much alive.

You might be thinking "well, sure, that's unsettling, but what'd really ruin my day is if it started singing weird, inhuman melodies of its own accord." Say no more! "Singing" is probably a bit too generous, but Alter does emit haunting sounds that are actually sine waves based on the movements of its fingers. Not quite as mesmerizing as it is terrifying, but still hard to turn away from.

'Eelume,' the underwater snake robot you probably wish you didn't know about

Just in case enough of your phobias weren't being stirred already, meet "Eelume." Initially developed as a collaboration between The Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Kongsberg Maritime and Statoil, the 2016 prototype of this robotic snake (above) is pitch black, has creepy red eyes and slithers around unpleasantly underwater.

Eelume is actually a nifty little machine whose sole purpose isn't just to freak us all out. Designed to do inspection and repair work on the ocean floor, it can wriggle and writhe its way into those areas current technology struggles to reach, and can be equipped with cameras and various tools to make its job easier.

The most recent model is thankfully a bit less imposing and more submarine-like than the prototype, but still every bit as wriggly, and probably just as hungry for world domination. At the moment it's still hindered a little by power cables, but the plan seems to be to eventually do away with these and enable it to swim freely on its own. Yay?