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Robotics: Should we make man out of machine?


writer icon João Moniz     Rony Michaud   |   Tech Ethics     🕐 11. Apr. 2018

The humanisation of inanimate objects as well as the recognising of human like patterns such as faces and even emotions, is something which everyone has probably experienced at some point. This phenomenon is called Pareidolia. It often serves as the basis for several human attachments which we establish towards places, individuals and even things. Humans consciously seem to make an effort to humanise the things around them. The field of robotics sees this more so than any others.

Humanising Robots
It is not uncommon for people to grow affectionate towards certain tools or devices which they interact with in their day to day life. From perceived lucky charms to favourite objects and even vehicles and bigger pieces of machinery. In fact, many people project human attributes onto their cars, such as faces or dispositions. Based on these projections, they may also develop a preference based on what they see.

However, it was not until recently that the humanoid robot, or android, has made the journey from the realm of science fiction and into reality. Recent advances in robotics, as well as in the world of technology in general, make it possible to create more advanced machines. These machines work with greater degrees of efficiency than we do, and also with an increasing degree of autonomy. It was only a natural step for mankind to give these machines increased autonomy. This means assigning them more human-like characteristics, and even a mind of their own.

The advantages of the Human Robot
The humanisation of robots poses several benefits to humanity. Robots who have shown to be perceived as human, or as having a mind or a heart, are more likely to be viewed by their users as trustworthy or reliable. In a study from 2017, researchers analysed situations in which a robot presents itself as nothing more than a tool, as a substitute for human labour. They found that humanisation plays a key factor in the rising success rate of human and robot endeavours. The study also showed that when a research team feels an emotional attachment to its robots, not only do the success rates of their missions go up, but there is also an optimisation of team performance and viability.

It is not only in the field of heavy lifting, hard work and hazardous environments where humanisation comes into play. Robots are being used to assist people with disabilities, and as aides to children with autism. They respond to social cues, and develop their own social skills. One of these robots is Kaspar, a social robot active in the UK.

Of Androids and Geminoids
Currently some of the main figureheads in the development of androids are Hanson Robotics, Boston Dynamics and the Hiroshi Ishiguro Laboratories, a sub-division of Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International.

Perhaps less known in the western world is Hiroshi Ishiguro’s Geminoids, from the latin word Gemini, meaning twin. Ishiguro’s vision is founded on his desire to understand humanity. He believes that the path to understanding comes through the building of a human itself. He has built his own robotic duplicate, as well as a few others. Some of these Geminoid creations are so detailed that even their synthetic skin comes equipped with several actuator nodes that mimic the functions of human face muscles in detail.

Dr. Hanson from Hanson Robotics has a similar mission. Rather than the understanding of humanity, he focuses on how robots can improve the human experience. Dr. Hanson’s goal is to promote a smooth integration of robots in our society. He sees robots as perfectly capable of not only integrating into our lives but also of experiencing kindness, intelligence, and empathy in the same way that humans do. For this, Hanson Robotics’ field of expertise has become social interaction.

One of their robots, Sophia, is already making a regular appearance in the media, as well as starring in movies. She has had a wide host of interactions with others, surprising people with her wit, humour, and uncanny ability to hold a conversation. Sophia is the first android to be given citizenship of a country, perhaps as a result of her capacity for human interaction.

It is, however, the work performed by Boston Dynamics that so far displays the greatest degree of autonomy. Atlas is described by its creators as the world’s most dynamic robot. In fact, it has shown a capacity to actually work, to carry a limited amount of weight, and even to move across unstable terrain such as snow covered wilderness. As of last year Atlas has displayed the ability to jump, and even backflip. Though not designed for human social interaction, it is so far the most advanced humanoid looking robot as far as its mechanical mobility is concerned.

Problems with Robots
Aside from the obvious discomfort which many people may feel when confronted with androids and other robots with human like characteristics, humanisation of robots may come with a set of challenging problems. These can be summarised in three main categories.

Firstly, the feelings that humans may develop for their robotic counterparts. These can range from friendship to more intense feelings such as love. Showing affection for our robotic co-workers may have unintended consequences.

It has been shown that the more affection humans have for their robotic co-workers, the less they are willing to put them in harm’s way. Having these emotions could stand in the way of what the robots were created to do in the very first place. Additionally, the psychological trauma a human may suffer if they must risk a robot’s life by sending them to do their job, can potentially be just as detrimental to the team’s health as if they had sent their human counterparts. This, despite the robotic team members having been created precisely to preserve human life.

The second problem is the potential expectations that we may have for our robotic counter-parts. Is a robot that bears human likeness expected to act, think and behave like a human? Should we even desire that to happen? Should we tax them for the work which they perform in the place of human workers? Bill Gates seems to defend that if a robot is meant to do the same functions that a human does, we should tax the work performed in the same way we would with any other human labourer.

The last of these three premises boils down to how we come to expect robots be treated by others. Humanising them to such a degree affects our relationship with them and their role as worker, as well as the expectations that we have for them in society. We also have to contend with the expectations that we have for others interacting with them.

Should robots be treated as equals? Should they be treated as servants and tools? And if so, should we be humanising them to such a degree that we grow affectionate towards them, as humans are inclined to do? And more importantly, where is the line drawn between tool and companion, servitude and slavery?

Broadly, these are some of the questions which will inevitably shape the future of our interactions with robots and that frighteningly enough, we do not yet seem to have an answer to.

The AI question
The question of whether artificial intelligence is an improvement on the lives of mankind, considering the potential risks it might present to the continued existence of humanity, makes for an interesting debate. Androids do not operate without the existence of an AI, which might allow them to learn more complex tasks over time. This begs the question of whether or not humanoid robots, with the assistance of an AI, will develop something akin to sentience. Might this pose a danger to the future of humanity? By giving androids the tools to evolve just as we did, is mankind unwittingly setting in motion the steps required for its own replacement as a species?

Dr. Hanson disagrees, stating that “Humans are brilliant, beautiful, compassionate, lovable, and capable of love, so why shouldn’t we aspire to make robots human like in these ways? Don’t we want robots to have such marvellous capabilities as love, compassion, and genius?”. However, one cannot help but wonder if Dr. Hanson’s reasoning stems from a love of his creations, as he exposes such a grand optimism in regards to the future of robots and mankind on the planet.

Though opinions on this subject vary, the answers inevitably lie with the public who will share the future with them.

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