The surprisingly human future of robotics

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Posted on: 15 June 2011 by Alexander Hay

We may soon learn to love the machine

Robots are the future, or at least, 'social' ones are:

...Whereas these earlier robots were intimately connected to inspiring visions of how technology would improve people's lives, contemporary robotics is galvanised by a sense of crisis in how to cope with ageing populations and people exhibiting congenital or late-onset developmental disabilities, combined with a shift in reimagining the nature of being and the boundaries between humans and machines.

The emergence of "social" robots at the end of the 20th century represented a departure in the way machines are considered. Such robots are imagined to act in place of people in particular social roles: as companions, therapists, nurses, nannies...even sexual partners.

To make this vision a reality, roboticists are placing greater emphasis on the physical appearance of machines. If robots are to be social, they must perform in "social" ways - that is, they must have faces and bodies that resemble people's, or provide a convincing simulacrum...

Some of the motivations behind this would-be revolution are quite creepy or unpleasant, however, mixing together racism and sexism in equal measure:

...In Japan, a predicted demographic time bomb has prompted both businesses and the state to invest millions of yen in the robotics industry, with mechanical solutions to coping with its growing elderly population preferred to non-Japanese carers. Indeed, robots are second only to one's own children as preferred providers of old-age support in Japan...

...According to Jennifer Robertson, professor of anthropology and the history of art at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, "robotics in Japan is both pro-natalist and anti-immigration. The Japanese government does not see increased immigration as a desirable solution to the labour crisis caused by a declining birth rate and an ageing population. There is the concomitant hope that humanoid robots will free women from domestic and caring duties so that they will be more willing to reproduce..."

Still, robots can be cuddly, as long they look like machines and don't try to do an unsettling cover act of their human makers.

...This has led some roboticists to make their robots very cute or child-like - or obviously mechanical - to avoid what they call the "uncanny valley". Indeed, if you visit robotics labs in the US, the UK and elsewhere in Europe, they often seem like nurseries because robots are so frequently modelled to look like children...

...The more human-like a robot looks, the more people expect it to behave like a human. When it does not, the results can be quite creepy. Consider the University of Hertfordshire's robot Kaspar: adults tend to think it is scary and many feel it looks too human-like.

Interestingly, the more mechanical a robot appears, the more people tend to warm to it. Mechanical ones appear to be more popular than the fleshy-looking variety. I have seen people alter their social behaviour (such as language exchange and eye contact) when interacting with automata. They work extremely hard to make themselves understood by humanoid robots. Rather than a relation of symmetry, asymmetry emerges, with people often compensating for the machines' lack of social behaviour...

This is already happening in popular culture and the greater scheme of things - who doesn't have have a soft spot for R2-D2, for example? And there are cases of US troops risking their lives in Iraq to rescue a beloved battle-bot. On the other hand, the more human-like robots will always be, well, horrifying.

[SOURCE: Times Higher Education Supplement]

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Alexander Hay

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