This Is Why Humans And Robots Will Be Best Friends In The Future

Dylan Love

Heather Knight, currently engaged in doctoral research at Carnegie Mellon University, has published a paper called "How Humans Respond To Robots."

Knight's work focuses specifically on social robotics — how robots and humans interact today, and how they could interact in the future. She's already exploring these subjects practically with Marilyn Monrobot, a lab that creates robots with social sensibility that are designed to entertain an audience (here she is speaking at a TED conference with a robot that does standup comedy).

She's also founder of the Robotics Film Festival and even ran the Cyborg Cabaret, a Pittsburgh-based variety show that prominently featured a number of robots.

Knight obviously cares about getting people to care about robots. Her paper is written in perfectly accessible lay terms, and we think it's deserving of your attention.

In the interest of getting you to take a look, here are a few key quotes from it that especially resonated with us.

Robots do not require eyes, arms or legs for us to treat them like social agents. It turns out that we rapidly assess machine capabilities and personas instinctively, perhaps because machines have physical embodiments and frequently readable objectives. Sociability is our natural interface, to each other and to living creatures in general. As part of that innate behavior, we quickly seek to identify objects from agents. In fact, as social creatures, it is often our default behavior to anthropomorphize moving robots.

Knight suggests that a robot doesn't need to look like a silicon human in order for it to serve legitimate social purpose. It doesn't even need to have proper robot analogs to human body parts, like having video cameras for eyes.

If we're going to easily socially bond with the robots of the future, all they need to do is move and be able to socialize with us on some level.

Will people be comfortable getting in an airplane with no pilot, even if domestic passenger drones have a much better safety record than human piloted commercial aviation? Will a patient be disconcerted or pleasantly surprised by a medical device that makes small talk, terrified or reassured by one that makes highly accurate incisions?

Some people have already bonded with their robots — in this case, soldiers who work with bomb disposal robots to the point that the non-living robot becomes a "teammate." Despite a robot's lack of any organic matter at all, if something happens to it, it can register to humans as something approaching death.

It turns out that iRobot, the manufacturers of the Packbot bomb-disposal robots, have actually received boxes of shrapnel consisting of the robots’ remains after an explosion with a note saying, “Can you fix it?” Upon offering to send a new robot to the unit, the soldiers say, “No, we want that one.” That specific robot was the one they had shared experiences with, bonded with, and the one they did not want to “die.”

This gets at the current tension that's still to be overcome if we are to embrace robots and robotic technology at its full potential. We already have the technology to automate so many things — imagine a world where air travel, or heck, all transportation, is fully automated — but there's a social aspect to be overcome before people feel safe "trusting" robots to do these types of things for us.

As Carnegie Mellon ethicist John Hooker once told our Robots Ethics class, while in theory there is not a moral negative to hurting a robot, if we regard that robot as a social entity, causing it damage reflects poorly on us. This is not dissimilar from discouraging young children from hurting ants, as we do not want such play behaviors to develop into biting other children at school.

Robots aren't people. To "kill" a robot doesn't "take a life." So to torture a robot doesn't actually introduce pain (or any feeling at all) to a machine. The problem lies in that the torture is taking place at all. (More on this here.)

The flipside of considering human bonding with machines is that robotic designers, and ultimately policymakers, may need to protect users from opportunities for social robots to replace or supplement healthy human contact or, more darkly, retard normal development. Think about a more extreme version of how video games are occasionally used by vulnerable populations (for example, the socially isolated or the depressed) as an escape that may or may not keep them from reengaging with other humans. 

In a world with sufficiently socially capable robots, there might be a danger to forgetting to interact with humans. Knight writes that "robot intelligence and simulated social behaviors are simplistic compared to the human equivalent. One cannot supplant the other, and protections should be in place to avoid asocial over-reliance."

In other words, beware of talking to your toaster too much, no matter how engaging the conversations are.

On the other hand, it is also possible to seek out ways of using these technologies to encourage human connection. As some autism researchers are investigating, social robots might help socially impaired people relate to others, practicing empathetic behaviors as a stepping stone to normal human contact.

Robots' different levels of social ability are already being used to help those who have trouble socializing, whether it's due to a learning disability or other causes. As we've already established, there are no "feelings" to be hurt, so there's very little risk (and only opportunity for improvement) if one were to practice social skills with a robot.

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