In his prescient 1970 work, Future Shock, author Alvin Toffler made this observation about the many challenges facing humanity as we come to grips with the changes brought about through technology: “Our children should be studying Arthur C. Clarke, William Tenn, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Robert Sheckley, not because these writers can tell them about rocket ships and time machines but, more important, because they can lead young minds through an imaginative exploration of the jungle of political, social, psychological, and ethical issues that will confront these children as adults.” (Toffler)Almost fifty years later, we 21st Century humans encounter these many challenges in our struggle to integrate robots into our daily lives. Robots varied physical appearances, simulated emotions, physical movements, and ability to deliver sensual touch will certainly alter our humanity in many ways. Here are a few notable examples of the ethical issues that arise when humans and robots come together not as science-fiction but in everyday reality.
Robots have become a mainstay in the industrial world of manufacturing, but these are mechanical automatons whose form follows their very practical function. More human-looking robots are coming into their own as companions and caregivers. “Nadine,” for instance was fabricated to look nearly identical to her creator, Nadia Thalmann, a scientist whose goal has been to create robots for the express purpose of interacting with people who need interaction. “As countries worldwide face challenges of an aging population, social robots can be one solution to address the shrinking workforce, become personal companions for children and the elderly at home, and even serve as a platform for healthcare services in future.” (O’hare) Another robot, “Edgar” serves as a stand-in for people who work remotely, an avatar which provides the worker with a tele-presence in meetings and interactions with distant coworkers and team members.
Another humanoid robot, Kaspar, has arrived on the scene to help autistic children learn new and appropriate ways to interact with other people. “Many children with autism find it hard to decipher basic human communication and emotion so Kaspar’s designers avoided making him too lifelike and instead opted for simplified, easy to process features. ” (Stock) Because technology in general can provide very predictable reactions and feedback, robots are a particularly attractive tool for helping people on the autistic spectrum – and these folks seems to have a natural affinity for robots. This emerging technology is poised to make a huge difference in the lives of those who can benefit greatly from robots.
Chatbots with newly acquired “emotional intelligence,” though without the physical form of their android counterparts are also changing our human world in important ways. One such creation, “ Ella”, exists to serve the needs of girls and women at an important junction in their lives:“We have created a sympathetic, reliable and easy-to-talk-to dialogue partner for girls and women facing an unbearable uncertainty of possibly becoming pregnant after unprotected sexual intercourse,” says Nadine Scholl, senior brand manager for women’s health. “In that situation, most women are emotionally heavily taxed and often unsure – unsure who to talk to and where to find answers to their questions. With our conversation design, Ella guides them through the most important questions and helps to quickly get the urgently needed information on the morning-after pill.” (Manning)
Another emotionally intelligent bot, Tabatha, exists on Facebook to help people dealing with the challenges of asthma:“In healthcare, if you layer emotional intelligence into a chatbot, it can make the bots very powerful,” says Maximilian Boost, head of social media at BI. “It was important for Tabatha to communicate with people who have asthma in a friendly, empathetic and informative way. Tabatha herself needed to appear emotionally intelligent as she was guiding people to self-identify with having asthma symptoms, while not imitating a doctor.” (Manning)Ella and Tabatha’s simulated empathy, round-the-clock availability, and built-in ability to avoid any rush to judgment, equip them to be valuable additions in the fight to help and support those dealing with medical, psychological, social, and relationship issues.
Other ethical challenges arise when robots are built to move and assist with military/police-type activities. General Dynamics’ new creation, Handle, has capabilities which make many wary of a future robotic dystopia:In January, footage appeared online of a bi-peddled two-wheeled robot known as Handle, built by Boston Dynamics. The video, which shows a large, humanoid type wheeled robot moving dynamically at speed, jumping, spinning and continuously rebalancing itself, was accompanied by audio from Boston Dynamics founder Marc Railbert referring to the robot as ‘nightmare inducing’. (Grey) Unfeeling machines, designed with the abilities to police, guard, and even kill, strike many as the beginning of the end for we humans as a species, or at least of the “better angels” part of our humanity.
When Google purchased General Dynamics in 2013, the new owners began winding down the company’s military robotics research:The defence contracts began winding down in 2013 when Google bought Boston Dynamics and made clear it wanted no part in military work. Initially, some employees felt a sense of relief and cautious optimism after a pep talk by Andy Rubin, then Google’s chief robotics executive and architect of the acquisition. “He was talking about really ambitious goals,” said one former employee, who asked not to be identified because of concerns it could hurt career opportunities in the small and tight-knit U.S. robotics community. “A robot that might be able to help the elderly and infirm. Robots that work in grocery stores. Robots that deliver packages.” It would appears that Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” philosophy won the day. “Within a matter of decades we’ve become entirely reliant on technology and robots are increasingly part of our everyday lives. Now it is estimated that realistic sex robots will become more common within a decade.” (Gee)
Some believe that these “sex robots” will improve our lot, allowing the robots to handle “routine” sexual performance, thus freeing couples to engage in more meaningful encounters with their romantic partners. Others fear these robots as part of a relentless objectification, and fetishization of women as objects. One robotics philosopher, Marc Behrendt expressed this choice quite succinctly: “We can either see them as crafty pieces of engineering made up of wires, sensors, motors and equipped with a rudimentary AI brain, or on the contrary we can choose to consider them as a symbolic presentation of a human being.” (Fernando)The choice is ours to make.
Associated Press. “What are those creepy robotic animals for? Boston Dynamics offers hints”. June 26, 2018. accessed at: https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/boston-dynamics-1.4693731.
Fernando, Gavin. “How AI sex robots could change humanity completely”. April 15, 2018. https://www.news.com.au/technology/innovation/inventions/how-ai-sex-robots-could-change-humanity-completely/news-story/4824a52c3c8907351bdf1ea5b49ac3d9.
Gee, Tabi Jackson. “Why female sex robots are more dangerous than you think”. July 5, 2017. accessed at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/female-robots-why-this-scarlett-johansson-bot-is-more-dangerous/.
Gray, Eva. “Hitting the track with Boston Dynamics’ Handle”. April 2, 2017. accessed at: https://www.army-technology.com/features/featurehitting-the-track-with-boston-dynamics-handle-5776254/
Manning, Ellen. “Are emotionally intelligent bots the future of AI?”. May 23, 2018. accessed at: https://www.raconteur.net/technology/emotionally-intelligent-ai-future.
O’Hare, Ryan. “Meet Nadine, the humanoid robot set to become your PA and even care for dementia patients”. March 7, 2016. accessed at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3480644/Meet-Nadine-humanoid-robot-set-PA-care-dementia-patients.html.
Stock, Matthew. “British robot helping autistic children with their social skills”. March 31, 2017. accessed at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-autism-robots/british-robot-helping-autistic-children-with-their-social-skills-idUSKBN1721QL.
Toffler, A. (1970). Future Shock. New York: Random House.
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