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Immunity dog: the canine with magical powers protecting Twitter users from death

How chain letters evolved into chain memes. 

You have exactly five seconds to save your mother’s life. At least, according to a message sent on the social network Twitter. Hundreds of tweets on the site are commanding users to retweet them within five seconds or their mother will die (or they’ll never be rich, or they’ll never meet their favourite celebrity).

It’s a new iteration of an age-old trend. Chain letters which threaten the bearer bad luck if they don’t pass them on have existed for over a century, but the invention of email made the practice more widespread. Now, social media has allowed the trend to take on a new life – so that over 47,000 people were compelled to share a picture of highlighters for fear of failing their GCSEs, and a further 82,000 shared a tweet threatening generic “bad luck”.

“In most cases, avoiding negative outcomes is a more effective motivator than achieving good luck,” explains Stuart Vyse, author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition. This explains why a tweet claiming the reader will have “good luck” if they share it only has a comparatively measly 2,000 shares. “Most of us tend to be risk averse,” says Vyse.

Yet although the psychology behind chain tweets is much the same as behind chain letters (Vyse says people who are more anxious or superstitious are likely to share), the ease of a RT has allowed these messages to spread in unprecedented ways. “There is very little effort involved. As a result, many people engage in a kind of Pascal's wager. They know it is silly, but they just don't want to ‘take a chance’ that it is real. They see the effort involved in exercising the superstition as being very small in relation to the potential benefit. As a result, they feel better once they have retweeted or continued the chain.” Some people also spread these tweets as a joke, bolstering their eventual numbers.

Silly as it may seem to sceptics, many on the site are genuinely distressed by threats of death or bad luck. “People clearly just create them to capitalise on the anxiety of other people for likes and retweets,” explains Hannah, an 18-year-old who tells me she is prone to superstition, especially around exams results day. But thankfully, Hannah has a way to avoid becoming anxious about these posts.

His name is immunity dog.

“I love him!” exclaims Hannah, “It’s incredibly reassuring… immunity dog means I can ignore the post with a clear conscience and avoid spreading it onto my followers’ feeds.”

Immunity dog has one job – and it is to protect the humans with his magical powers. It goes like this. When someone posts a negative “RT or…” tweet, someone else will jump into the replies with a picture of immunity dog.

“This is the immunity dog,” reads the image, “he will protect you from ‘Your mother will die in her sleep tonight if you don’t reply to this’ and other likewise posts. He will also protect you from the ‘No immunities’ posts as well, so nothing can stop this dog from protecting you. Take good care of him, he is a good dog.”

It’s a joke – and yet it’s not. Immunity dog is a meme with unclear origins (though he has made many viral iterations). Many share immunity dog because it’s funny (fitting in with the internet’s general love of good boys) and yet others save him on their camera rolls and ensure he is ready whenever they see a bad luck tweet. Search the word “immunity dog anxiety” for example, and you will find hundreds of teens grateful for the meme.

Yet is immunity dog not, in himself, a chain letter? Vyse points out that the meme repeats the threat of “Your mother will die” in the body text. “It’s a very frightening thought that is part of the meme and cannot be easily separated from the picture of the dog,” he explains. “This is a classic of chain letters. The letter – or meme in this case – creates its own anxiety in the hope that you will then engage in the superstition as a means of relieving it.”

Indeed, many social media users share immunity dog even when they haven’t seen threatening tweets. In short, they are compelled to share him pre-emptively in the exact same way they share threatening tweets.

Still, as long as these terrifying messages exist, immunity dog will provide relief for young Twitter users. Joel is a 20-year-old student from Newcastle who has created an immunity dog account so he can pose as the dog and reply to the negative tweets he sees (he did not originally make the meme).

“To me the immunity dog is a joke, along with the superstitious posts I respond to," he says. "However, I do understand that some people do think it helps to retweet the immunity dog just in case."

“If this account or the immunity dog meme does help someone feel better, then it’s only a good thing.” Joel hopes that his account will both make unsuperstitious people laugh, and help those who really do feel reassured by what others see as a stupid meme.

Immunity dog is new – and so is the ease of a RT button (YouTube comments used to be full of “post this on ten videos or a clown will kill you a knife” but that was naturally harder work to spread). But Vyse emphasises that these chain comments and memes are all rooted in history. “Because we all have anxieties, chain letters and chain memes are an easy way to employ them for egotistical reasons… Seeing [them] go all over the world would undoubtedly be an enormous kick.” There are some things, then, we might never be immune to.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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Welcome to the Uncanny Valley: how creepy robot dogs are on the rise

It’s hard not to feel a little destabilised after watching a robot’s freakishly long limbs open a door. 

If you’re among those devouring the latest season of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian hellscape Black Mirror, you may still be having metallic nightmares of being chased by the freaky robo-dogs of  “Metalhead”. In which case, you maybe unsettled to know that these nightmares could in theory become a reality (in the distant future), as a viral video from the robotics firm Boston Dynamics (of backflipping robot fame) revealed earlier this week.


Charmingly titled, “Hey Buddy, can you give me a hand?” a SpotMini, Boston Dynamics’ smallest robot, approaches a door and appears to turn sideways before scampering away. Another SpotMini, fitted with an extending claw-arm, opens the door and lets the first robot scamper through, propping it open to follow. 

 

The director of “Metalhead”, David Slade, was inspired by these very demonstrations. As he stated in an interview in January, the inspiration for those robotic villains stemmed from none other than Boston Dynamics itself. “Those fucking Boston Dynamics robots are terrifying, so that in itself was enough that we didn’t have to worry about it,” he told IndieWire. 


Beyond its viral value, the SpotMini marks an interesting stage in the development of artificial intelligence and robotics. Being able to open a door has long since been the bar for the development of modern robots, as Matt Simon of WIRED pointed out. With this bar seemingly met – and surpassed – the questions remains as to what’s next.


Boston Dynamics robots seem designed mostly for academic and research purposes. Previously, DARPA, the research and development wing of the US defence department and arguably the birthplace of modern robotics, rejected some of the robots for usage because they were too loud. Now, though, they’re silent.


Even those who were not Black Mirror fans expressed a sense of unease while watching the Boston Dynamics email. Indeed, it’s hard not to feel a little destabilised after watching a robot’s freakishly long limbs open a door, which was previously the domain of, you know, humans and crafty pets. But such feelings of revulsion could have something to do with Masahiro Mori’s “Uncanny Valley” theory, which he first proposed in the 1970s.


The “uncanny valley” could be defined as the dip in emotional response from humans when interacting with a being that is vaguely humanoid. The theory suggests that robots become more appealing as they draw closer to human characteristics – but only up until a certain point. Once that point has been reached, and surpassed, humans then find those robots “uncanny”. Then, as they resemble us even more closely, we find that we grow less repulsed by them. 

 

 

While the theory has circulated since the 1970s, a 2005 translation of the paper into English made the concepts more widely accessible, and it has been studied by academics ranging from philosophy to psychology. Despite the term wriggling its way into everyday techspeak, the theory itself is yet to be proven. In 2016, the researchers Mathur & Reichling studied real world robots and humans’ reactions to them, but found overall ambiguous evidence for the existence of the uncanny valley. 


Watching one of the SpotMinis open a door – and then prop it open, like you would – may make our skin crawl for those very reasons. The SpotMini, and even some of Boston Dynamic’s other robots, like the backflipping Atlas, have a weird mix of familiar and unfamiliar characteristics. In the viral video, for example, the way that the armed robot holds open the door resembles an interaction that many of us see everyday.   


That may also have something to do with why this particular robot, which has also been used to wash dishes, has triggered a different reaction to Handle, another robot in the Boston Dynamic litter, which can wheel around faster than any natural organism and perform backflips (complete with an athletic hand raise at the end). Handle's acrobaticism inspires a mixture of fear and awe. Watching SpotMini, whose mannerisms bear a resemblance to a family dog, fumble and open a door, feels a little more familiar, but a little more weird.

 

There are, of course, real fears about robots that are not driven by TV. The baseline for robo-phobia has long since been that they’re not only coming to take our jobs, but they’ll be better than us at it too. SpotMini is technically very interesting because of how it merges software and hardware. That the two SpotMinis can co-operate paves the way towards teamwork between robots, which has until recently remained a far off prospect.


Robots are already a key function of many military operations. They carry out tasks that are too dangerous to entrust to humans, with more accuracy. Additionally, robots are entering our social spheres - with AI controlled assistants like Alexa, the controversial robot Sophia (she once expressed a desire to destroy humans), or the AELOUS home assistant that was unveiled at a convention in Vegas, which can vacuum and fetch you a beer (and will be retailing later this year).


While there are all kinds of debates within artificial intelligence and robotics about what this means for the field, there could be a greater number of non-technically trained experts interacting with robots, relying on intuition and common sense to frame their interactions. 


That takes the implications of the uncanny valley outside of just theoretical. What kind of robot can we interact with, sans revulsion? Does that mean we can only use them in specific contexts. And do they have to look a certain way? 


As always, there’s the bigger picture to consider too. Boston Dynamics remains spectacularly good at making viral videos that draw attention to its products, which are indubitably marvels of modern engineering. Moreover, lower level sensorimotor skills that an infant develops intuitively – such as, you guessed it, opening a door – are actually far more difficult to programme than high-level displays of intelligence, such as winning a chess game (also known as Moravec's paradox).


So while the robo-dog may be unnerving (and there's a reason for that), our robot overhounds are still a while away. But when fully autonomous and physical robots do eventually proliferate, they'll know how to set themselves free.