From the ARCADE Issue 35.3 feature,"Rethinking Efficiency." Articles from the issue will release online over the following weeks. Subscribe to receive ARCADE in print.

Simone Giertz

Stills taken from the video I Made a Lipstick Robot by Simone Giertz, which can be found on her YouTube channel "Simone's Robots."

As I absentmindedly glance at my phone, an email comes through. “I think you’ll like this,” the subject line reads. One click later, I’m introduced to the “Queen of Shitty Robots,” Simone Giertz. The next hour passes quickly as I find myself enthralled by the YouTube star’s “Shitty Robot Nation,” the name she uses to refer to the small empire of fantastically incompetent machines she has built. Her YouTube channel offers me video after video of awkward clapping robots, aggressive slapping alarm-clock robots, and chopping robots wielding knives. Every person with whom I share these Internet gems is sucked into Simone’s tech-age slapstick, responding with a universal reaction of glee. However, the delight inspired by Shitty Robot Nation runs deeper than the simple joy of watching someone get smacked in the face repeatedly by a hand-shaped alarm clock. Through spectacular, often self-destructive failures, Simone’s robots begin to highlight the unique qualities of being human.

We humans often view robots in terms of what they can do better than us. They are faster, smarter (in algorithmic, calculative sort of ways), and more accurate than humans, and this realization causes unease as robots perform an increasing number of jobs better than people. The angst created by our perceived competition with robots for jobs contributes to our delight as we watch the spectacular incompetence of Simone Giertz’s robotic creations. These videos provide an innocent outlet for the very human tendency to take slight pleasure in the harmless failures of our rivals. Since robots have no feelings, hopes, or dreams, we can laugh at them guilt-free as they fail at their jobs, which include applying lipstick, brushing teeth, and feeding popcorn to humans.

The failure of robots is not nearly as funny when the automated doors at the grocery store refuse to see you or when your “smart” car’s self-park feature fails and runs into onlookers during a live demo. Shitty Robot Nation is funny because it is designed failure. No humans were harmed in the process (except maybe Simone, a little). And while Simone’s robots fail in amusing ways because she designed them for entertainment purposes, if a team of software and hardware experts engineered the same robots they would still be bad at these simple tasks. A robot that is as efficient as we are at folding laundry—something that we do with ease using any number of learned or self-developed methods—is still many years away.

Behind the slapstick humor of Simone Giertz’s Shitty Robots, under the layer where we find small joys in the failures of our rivals, lies the most powerful reason we delight in this particular brand of bad robots. By being terrible at all of the mundane, intimate tasks that comprise much of our daily existence, these robots remind us of their inability to fully replace humans. In a memo from 2007 to top executives, Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz discusses the elements that make a cup of coffee special, focusing on the romance of the unique sensory experience created through human connection. Ten years of testing and innovation later, the company stands by that memo, reinforcing the value of the human experience through its continued employment of baristas.

As we prepare for changes not just in the job market but also in how we engage with each other and our environments, we can use a humorous reminder of what makes us uniquely human. Maybe if we address the scary parts of advancing technology by making progress on the ethical and economic implications of ubiquitous robotics, we can focus on developing the skills and knowledge that will make us better at being humans. I may not be able to make 100 car tires in an hour, but I am very good at shoving popcorn in my mouth and folding my own laundry, sometimes even at the same time.