Robots

I don’t know about you, but my first introduction to robots was the robot from the T.V series “Lost in Space” and his most iconic line “Danger Will Robinson”. There you have me anthropomorphising the sexless robot into a ‘he’, possibly because ‘he’ had a male voice. Even though the evil Dr. Smith often seemed to turn the robot to the ‘dark side,’ inevitably the Doctor’s schemes were thwarted.

In my youth, admittedly lost in the mists of time, I read enormous amounts of ‘science fiction’ and naturally fell in love with Mr. Spock (actually quite a robotic persona) from the original Star Trek series. Isaac Asimov was and still is one of my favorite authors and his
Three Laws of Robotics” is where I absorbed my understanding and acceptance of robots.

Robin Williams took to the silver screen as ‘Bicentennial Man’ in 1999, where a robot came to consciousness and eventually wished to become human and to die. Then in 2004, we had Will Smith starring in I, Robot. This time the tale was darker and robots had been ‘turned’ by an A.I. who felt that humans needed to be ‘looked after’ for their own safety. This movie, titled the same as the Asimov book, was not in fact an adaptation of that book but was “inspired by” the Asimov collection of short stories. Yet even this dark tale has a robot who is ‘good’ and helps our hero win the day.

Robots are already amongst us.

Today, in November 2017, robots are real. They are amongst us. We hardly notice them because, for the most part, they look like machines. Search for robots and artificial intelligence and you’ll be inundated with articles warning about the dangers of both as well as articles extolling the virtues of both.

Perhaps we accept some because they’re very clearly machines. Something that is programmed to do just one thing doesn’t seem threatening in the atavistic sense of something to be feared because it can harm you. Even though, in reality, robots have replaced humans in many jobs where repetitive actions can be done as well as–or in some cases better than–a human.

So we accept ‘unintelligent’ robots, those that need to be programmed via a computer by a human. We ‘trust’ the human (although why we should view a human as more ‘trustworthy’ is a puzzle, to me at least) in a way we don’t trust an ‘intelligent’ robot, especially if it looks ‘almost’  human.

We know that robots are in everyday use: in manufacturing, in surgery, in Walmart. Yes, Walmart uses robots to scan shelves. There is a nurse robot, Tug, which is simply a self-driving cart that delivers medication and food to patients, ensuring timely and accurate doses. Tug can alert staff if a patient hasn’t eaten the food etc.

Robotic surgery is almost commonplace now. We don’t think about it, and we don’t generally speaking ask if the surgeon is going to be assisted by a robot or a human.

Robots are an integral part of our lives. Many of the things we take for granted would be either impossible or too expensive to maintain, especially with the accelerating pace of society.

We unknowingly accept robots because–for the most part–they don’t intrude into our everyday lives. When they do, they’re very useful and so obviously not humanlike that they don’t bother us. Roomba anyone? I for one would love to have a Roomba vacuum, an autonomous machine that maps and then cleans the floors in my house without me having to do anything but switch it on. My husband, not so much.

We even have the first robot citizen, in Saudi Arabia of all places, this world first took place on October 25th 2017. Sophia is an AI robot. She combines artificial intelligence with robotics and has been granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia. She may still be in the uncanny valley area as she’s built to be as human looking as possible but doesn’t quite make it. Still, she is leading the way. In Saudi Arabia though, citizen rights will not stop her being ‘powered down’ if she should prove unreliable.

Are ‘intelligent’ robots acceptable?

Do we accept ‘intelligent’ robots as well as we do the mechanical variety? This is the merging of machine (the nuts and bolts of the thing) with artificial intelligence (the thinking, learning and autonomous ‘brain’ that makes decisions) leading to something that not only can learn but can also make decisions without human input.

Sometimes, as with SIRI, Alexa and Google Assistant, we use A.I. (artificial intelligence) without consciously being aware of it. If you’ve ever used a website ‘live chat’ facility to ask questions or interact in someway, the chances are that you’ve been ‘chatting’ with a ‘chatbot’ A.I. software that mimics human behaviour.

We don’t know we’re chatting with an A.I. so we don’t think about it. Which means we accept them without problem. I think problems start to arise when you have a machine that can move, think and act autonomously without human supervision or intervention.

Self driving cars are an example; once programmed, they drive, make decisions based on information received via sensors, and then act. They do this much more quickly than we humans do. The first crash of an autonomous vehicle was caused by a human truck driver illegally backing into a stationary bus.

Where most of us will probably encounter intelligent robots though is in care homes for the elderly. Pepper is a robot developed to interact with elderly patients in residential homes and is being trialled in the UK.

With an ever-aging population, most ‘developed’ countries are becoming top-heavy demographically, so care workers–especially ethical ones who will actually care about the residents they look after–are in ever-shorter supply. Pepper can interact with residents in a variety of ways. Facial recognition allows Pepper to know who ‘they’re’ speaking with. They can ensure medication is taken correctly and warn staff if a resident is not eating or has fallen.

People say that they’ll never take the place of ‘real’ people and the physical hugs and touches, but is that strictly true? Take a look at the robot cats and puppies made by Hasbro. These are being used more and more to give comfort and joy to lonely and isolated people. Each individual robot learns from the interactions between it and its ‘human,’ creating a bond that is real as for as the human is concerned.

The list of applications that robots already perform is huge, from robot pets to self-driving vehicles, from vacuums and lawnmowers to robot penguins and butterflies. The real fear is when ‘autonomous’ is added to the mix. This implies we are not in control of the machine. It can make its own decisions, and we have no way of knowing in advance what that decision might be.

Further Reading

 

Image via Adobe Stock

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