The Robots are Coming! Good News or Bad News?

A Whole New World of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence is Coming. Interesting Times are Ahead – Soon.

I, like many of you, have long been fascinated by the increasingly sophisticated development of robots and the parallel acceleration of artificial intelligence, or AI. We are now at a time wherein these two technologies are merging in some fascinating ways. As usual with technological advances, we should expect good news and bad news.

Just in the last month, three fascinating articles have been published in the general media about this phenomenon. Articles in Wired and in the Washington Post discussed new studies. There is some overlap of content in the articles, but from different perspectives. They are worth reading (links provided below).

The gist of the studies is that people transfer human qualities in their perception and judgment of robots. They do so with surprising speed and fidelity. They also assign gender roles to them when the appearance is not obvious, and that also shapes how they relate to the robots.

This is not surprising. Humans are not accustomed to having conversations and developing the kind of relationships we do with each other with any other type of creature (OK, maybe our dogs, but we talked about that earlier. Not really the same thing). When these new creatures effectively mimic many human characteristics, we are inclined to slide into the kind of evaluation and interaction we do with people. As AI gets better and better, this will be even more the case.

Here were two observations I found fascinating from these studies. One, how people interacted with the robots had an effect on other activities these people engaged in after they were no longer around the robots. There was a residual effect. Two, children came to trust and bond with the robots with blazing speed. Again, perhaps not surprising when one thinks about it, but there are some really interesting implications in all this. What sort of information and capabilities are in that robot you bought for your kid?

If you would like to read a bit more about these studies (note the cute robots), here are links to those first two articles:



The third article, also from the Washington Post, covered an experiment in which people were asked to have a number of interactions with a robot and at the conclusion of the exercise, to turn off the robot. Half the exchanges were set up by the controllers to have the robot plead not to be turned off. Phrases like “I am afraid of the darkness” and “I am afraid they will never turn me on again” were employed.

About one-third of the people refused to turn off the robot. The others did turn them off but took two to three times as long to do so than those who did not hear pleas from the robots. When questioned afterwards, most everyone said they felt sorry for the robots. They did not want to cause them fear or discomfort. They knew they were mechanical devices. Still, in a short period of interaction, they had bonded as if with a living creature.

This, too, is a fascinating, short read. WP:

As if all that were not enough, last night I was scanning technical sites on my phone and I came across an article that was, um, different. It seems there is this company that is the king of high-end sex robots. If you are not sure what that means these days, feel free to Google it. We are not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

This company announced that they have a new line with advanced AI capabilities. The intrepid reporter doing this story went to their offices. He “interviewed” one of the final prototypes. I have to tell you, it was spooky. Many of us are familiar with the Turing Test. The test is for a computer to fool a person into thinking they are interacting with another human. Now, take that idea and make it three dimensional – very three dimensional. We may not be that far from such a state.

The Japanese have a national fascination with robots. They are doing much more advanced work than anyone else. Work is underway developing robots that can be care givers or companions. I have seen videos of the interactions with early models. It is striking how fast a “relationship” develops. And yet, the Japanese models almost never have a human face. They are pleasant looking, but not human-like. I expect they are trying to control for the way people connect with the machines.

One of the more popular TV shows around 2015 was Humans.The story line was that technology was now so advanced that robots could be fabricated that were more humanoid (a term I see in the literature more often, by the way) than robotic. They were called Synths, short for synthetic life form. At some point, they spontaneously attained consciousness and self-awareness, which certainly complicated relationships and power dynamics with humans. Both life forms were trying to figure out what happens next.

We are not “there” yet with our robotic AI creations, but I would bet we get there sooner than many of us will expect. We are somewhere between the Wizard of Oz’s Tin Man and Star Trek’s Data,but it is hard to know where we are on that continuum. You can bet that progress will not be linear or predictable. Not many people, people working in this field, are thinking much about the speed bumps in the road ahead.

Now would be a good time for more of us to cogitate on this. This is a line of technological development that has breathtaking potential for good and for ill. I think it likely a fool’s errand to say we should slow down, and frankly, I am curious to see where this could take us. But if I were “King for a Day,” I would assemble a room full of our best science fiction writes to ask them, “What should we be worried about?”

If you don’t have time to read the aforementioned articles, perhaps your robot can read and summarize them for you.

   Bill Clontz

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1 reply to The Robots are Coming! Good News or Bad News?

  1. We are in The Twilight Zone

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