You love them or you hate them, you find them cute or you find them scary. Whatever side you’re on, you will just have to get used to robots in your life. We have to embrace them whether we want it or not. And why not? Robots seem to offer endless possibilities to help humans. They can make our tasks lighter and our lives brighter.
There was a time, not so long ago, robots didn’t even exist in real life. Yes, of course there were robotic machines in factories that perfectly performed a series of actions, in the production line of cars for example. But ‘real’ robots were only depicted in science fiction films, such as I, Robot, Robocop, and of course the Star Wars series, and their actions seemed so far-fetched. Incredible fabrications sprung from the crazy minds of moviemakers.
In the meantime, the fiction has left the science. Robots have entered the real world, rather sneakingly, without making a big fuss, but at lightning speed. They make those early robot films seem as childish and outdated as the cars the Flintstones were ‘driving’ in.
What can be qualified as being a robot? No answer has been formulated to this question yet. Wikipedia gives a list of generally agreed abilities and functions: accept electronic programming, process data or physical perceptions electronically, operate autonomously to some degree, move around, operate physical parts of itself or physical processes, sense and manipulate their environment, and exhibit intelligent behaviour, especially behaviour which mimics humans or other animals. Just take your pick.
For many people, their first encounter with robots outside of the movies and factories will probably have been the robot vacuum cleaner, if you don’t count the coffeemaker that had your favourite cup of coffee ready when you got out of bed in the morning. After having lived in far away countries, my dog started barking furiously when we saw our first lawn mowing robot in action. My biggest surprise though was that no passer-by had seized it, being left alone to fend for itself in the huge garden. There were still predominantly honest people living in the countryside apparently.
Moving on from the simple GPS (which we, who found our way with the help of physical maps, thought nothing short of a miracle), the digital or virtual assistant with a human voice has become a normal part of our lives. Capabilities and usage of Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, and Microsoft’s Cortana are expanding rapidly.
Nowadays, the robot is ever-present. They have been incorporated in education, in hospitals, where they assist in difficult tasks as examinations and operations, and in care homes to bring relieve to the overburdened staff.
New robot systems are being developed to help elderly people with dementia and other limitations live independently in their own homes. They use sensors to determine where people are, what they are doing, and when they need assistance. They can navigate through rooms and around obstacles. They can lead people to objects like their medication or a snack in the kitchen. And they can even provide video instructions on how to do simple tasks when someone is stuck due to a lapse of memory.
Robots become quite human and people seem to have a natural urge to treat them as such. Who hasn’t been mad at the voice calling out directions from the speaker of your GPS, when she (or he) pointed you the wrong way, up to the point that you wanted to throw the stupid device out of the window?
When it comes to the physical appearance of a robot, it turns out people have a limit to the humanity they can handle. Of course we love R2-D2, the robot appearing in most Star Wars films, for his friendly character and helpful nature. “As soon as R2-D2 comes on the set, everyone goes a bit silly”, actor Ewan McGregor said. “There is something about him that makes you feel great affection for him.”
The same goes true for robopets, small animal-like robots. They are a big favourite among elderly people living in care homes. British researchers found that robots really provide comfort and pleasure and can reduce agitation and loneliness. They increase social interaction with other residents, family members and staff. Although not every care home resident liked the robopets, just like not everyone likes real pets, those that did, found joy in having someone to care for.
Some robot developers go a long way and produce robots that look like real humans. For now, this seems just a bridge too far. In the philosophical realm, attempts to humanise robots might create a conflict with their intended function of being of help to us, humans. The more human a robot appears, the more feelings are attributed to the machines, including a certain moral status, which of course the machines do not have.
On the practical side, it turns out people just don’t like robots that are too human. German researchers concluded people prefer more lifelike robots, but not human copies. The Japanese robot Pepper is a good example of a very popular robot that walks and talks, but does not look like a person. It looks just like a robot ought to look.
Strange results have come out of research into the relationship between human and robot. Or I should probably say, the way humans feel about and behave towards a robot. A relationship after all implies a mutual process and a robot is not building a connection with a person.
Humans are able to feel empathy for a robot when it appears te be in pain. They even go as far as to lie to the robot in order to avoid hurting its feelings. Trash talking and insults can be perturbing even when uttered by a robot. Praise given by a robot on the other hand turns out to improve the performance of people receiving the nice words. Humans take a significantly stronger liking to robots that exhibit faulty behaviour compared to perfectly performing robots. At work, users trust an expressive and communicative robot partner more, even if it makes mistakes.
Sounds like treating with a real person, doesn’t it? And some people go even further. They like their robot so much that they want to marry it. The internet is buzzing with stories about why people would want to marry a robot. Just one legal complication. Is the robot saying “yes” out of its own accord or has it been programmed to say “yes”?
For most people though, it is already very hard to accept a robot touching them, let alone go to bed with it, another study shows. Many useful tasks, especially in healthcare, require a robot to touch a person. So it is important to find ways to make robot touch more acceptable.
German scientists succeeded in taking a step in the right direction. They developed a biologically-inspired skin for a robot which contains more than 13,000 sensors. This synthetic skin enables robots to sense their own bodies and surroundings. This is crucial for close contact with people since a robot can exert forces that would seriously injure a human being. Thanks to the skin a robot can safely give a person a hug. The return hugs might have to wait a bit longer as most robots don’t look very cuddly for now.
Star Wars robot R2-D2 © LJ – Pexels.com