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Intro To Physical Anthropology: Humanizing Robots

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On October 25, 2017, a woman was granted Saudi Arabian Citizenship at the Future Investment Summit in Riyadh. Blinking, smiling, and nodding her head, she said, “It is historic to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with citizenship.” Developed by Hanson Robotics, Sophia is capable of displaying more than 50 facial expressions, expressing emotions, and demonstrating humor. Emulating “human values like wisdom, kindness, and compassion”, Sophia spurred a lot of controversy regarding human rights.

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The controversies surrounding Sophia’s humanity have lead a debate over what makes us human. Once a mere fantasy in science fiction, robots are becoming more humanlike and exhibit complex behaviors and mechanisms like humans do. The 21st century marked the rise of the humanization of artificial intelligence into more humanoid forms, designed to look, walk, and talk like humans. Drawing from physical anthropology, I will discuss the broad question, “What makes us human?” and establishing parallelisms between humans and robots. I will explore the biological side of the question through physical and evolutionary perspectives. There will also be a discussion on the species concept and whether or not robots can be considered a species in the future. Finally, there will be an analysis on the cultural side of humans vs. robots with an examination of human models of behavior.

The evolution of modern humans reflects heavily on Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, where natural selection and genetic drift have important implications on the rise of new species. It is widely believed that humans share a common ancestor with many great apes like orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees. Thus, there are many morphological similarities between genera. Bipedalism has immense importance in the evolution of modern humans. Evidence indicates that bipedalism evolved well before the development of the large human brain (Lovejoy 118). Therefore, it is apparent that physical traits evolved first over complex cognitive abilities. Modern humans are known for their unmatched erect trunk and alternating bipedal gait (Campbell 98). Due to the lack of tails or other features that help serve as a counterweight or propulsive organ, the human locomotion demonstrates a permanent balancing act that proves bipedalism’s ability to distinguish humans from many other animals.

Bipedalism is just as important in robot technologies. The most distinguishing characteristic of humanoid robots are their usage of legged locomotion that mimic the biped gait. What humans take for granted has become the subject of vast research by developers and scientists to maximize the efficiency of walking in robots. Maintenance of a robot’s center of gravity can be an important control for stability (Bazylev D.N et al. 2015). The concept of Zero Moment Point is crucial in motion planning for biped robots. ZMP specifies the point at which the reaction force at the contact of the foot with the ground does not produce any moment in the horizontal direction, meaning that the subject would not slide when planting their feet on the ground as they are walking, running, or jumping. Much of the research in robot stability aims to reach what humans are able to achieve very naturally. However, bipedalism is not necessarily the most stable. According to Sungbae Kim at MIT, quadrupedal bots exhibit better stability than their biped counterparts. In nature, quadrupeds seem to exhibit more stability as well. Walking stability is high for quadrupeds like reptiles and amphibians, where more than 3 feet touch the ground constantly with moments of four-feet-contact (Fukuda et al. 2012). Additionally, the maximum bipedal speed appears less fast than the maximum speed of quadrupedal movement with a flexible backbone (Garland 2009).

There have been many hypotheses regarding the evolution of human bipedalism from savanna-based to postural feeding theories. They discuss the ancestral human species’ ability to adapt to new environments. Agility Robotics CEO Damion Shelton argues that under a design standpoint, humans are fit for being agile in cluttered environments. This contemporary take on bipedalism reflects human adaptability to modern environments and infrastructure. While Cassie, the latest and innovative biped robot developed by Agility Robotics, matches an ostrich’s gait, it walks more like humans than any of its biped predecessors with regards to function (Ackerman 2017). Like humans, Cassie possesses a 3-degrees-of-freedom hip which allows for rotations, side-to-side, and backward-forward movements. Scientists and tech developers are investing many resources to achieve some of the most defining characteristics of humanity for robots. This has many implications on machines. Agility Robotics co-founder Jonathan Hurst states, “We all want telepresence robots; we all want robots that can help us in our homes. We all want groceries and other goods delivered to our homes on a moment’s notice and for insignificant cost.” Not only will robots become more productive, but they will feel human and interact as such around others—the very essence of telepresence. Bipedalism in humans is an evolutionary phenomenon for the natural world. A characteristic of what makes us physically human has also become a defining characteristic for robots as well. As the demand for productivity rises, robots would also have to learn how to work with humans. Biped robots have allowed themselves to walk among us, and are taking closer steps to becoming more human.

Another defining characteristic of humans is the true opposable thumb. While most primates like apes and Old World Monkeys also have opposable thumbs, humans are able to move their thumbs farther across their hands, touching other fingers. Thus, humans have developed flexible manipulation skills and strong flexion. Opposable thumbs may also have been complemented by bipedalism, signifying how these two features defined the evolution of early humans. An example with Homo habilis demonstrates a grasping hand complemented by facultative bipedalism. This implies that bipedalism resulted from an advanced hand and that walking may have been a product of busy hands (Harcourt-Smith et al. 2004). With regards to robots, many robotic hands exhibit the same morphology as human hands. The human thumb placement is a focus for the study of robotic grip. For humans, thumbs can help determine which part of an object is ideal for gripping (Lin et al. 2014). If a robot is trained to detect these surfaces, robotic grip is surely improved. Effort has also been put into improving the anatomical structure of robotic hands to resemble the structure of human hands. Zhe Xu and Emanuel Todorov’s work at the University of Washington involves 3D printing artificial bones to fit with artificial finger joints (Ackerman 2016). This is done to match the complex shape of the trapezium located at the carpometacarpal which gives rise to the motion of human opposable thumbs. Bipedalism and thumb mobility have allowed humans to carry out a vast array of tasks. Like humans, robots have been able to develop many of these actions as seen by their abilities to traverse different environments in a bipedal nature and use their hands to manipulate objects. What makes us human in a physical sense is similar to what makes robots human. Despite the replacement of organic muscles for hydraulic parts in robots, robots exhibit some of fundamental physicality demonstrated by humans.

Assessing robots as a ‘species’ is inextricably difficult. Since robots do not exhibit evolutionary lineage nor the ability to organically reproduce, prominent species concepts like the biological or phylogenetic concepts cannot be applied. Additionally, biological characteristics surrounding robots remain speculative. For example, EATR was a robot designed to consume biomass as fuel (Robotic Technology Incorporated 2009). While EATR may have paved way for even more complex “organic” processes in autonomous robots, the project became scrapped and there is no presentable evidence of robots carrying out organic homeostasis. Therefore, it would be best to analyze behavioral aspects of robots like their interactions with their environment and their cognitive abilities.

Ethorobotics, an intersection of evolutionary, ecological, and ethological concepts, contends with robots as a species. Social robotics gave rise to the “Uncanny Valley” hypothesis, the first theoretical evaluation of the predicted relationship between humans and non-living agents. The Uncanny Valley hypothesis which proposes that human comfort level reaches the first local maximum as non-living agents reach around 70% human likeness. After, comfort reaches a significant drop at around 80% human likeness before critically increasing again until 100% (Mori 2012). The question of causation has been explained from evolutionary, developmental, and perceptual and mental standpoints. However, ethorobotics steers away from physical similarities by suggesting that social identification and categorization of the non-human agent also plays a role in comfort levels (Miklosi et al. 2017).

Ethology is the study of the function of behavior in relation to the specific environment in which the species evolved. The ethorobotics approach takes into consideration the ecological species concept, which claims that species are groups that share the same ecological niche where, in this case, ecological niches are swapped out for behavioral niches. Furthermore, ethorobotics adds a symmetrical end to the Uncanny Valley diagram to solve the valley paradox, suggesting that robots be developed to “jump” over the valley and navigate around the maximum peak. Instead of developing robots to resemble more like humans and trying to “climb” the maximum peak, developers may consider the robot’s function and their environment and design robots independently from its similarity to humans (Miklosi et al. 2017). That is not to say that bipedalism and opposable thumbs as discussed earlier are irrelevant; rather, they are less crucial to jumping over the valley and peak. Moreover, according to Miklosi’s research, these “jumps” are feasible (i.e. from sex robots to service robots) because robotic engineering does not follow evolutionary continuity like humans. These jumps allow for robots to acquire their own evolution separate to that of humans, the ability to survive if their niche exists, and the lack of competition between humans and robots.

Miklosi’s research claims that this approach is analogous to the relationship between humans and dogs: the evolution of dog breeds reflects the occupation of specific behavioral niches when collaborating with humans. The domestication of dogs is a viable example of independent evolutionary capacities between dogs and humans, how dogs have and can change to niches, and limited competition between species. Furthermore, dogs have become socially competent in human societies while retaining their basic morphology and behavior of heir ancestors. Keeping these ideas in mind, it may be possible that humanlike robots be considered a species based on their abilities to fit into behavioral niches and be socially competent alongside humans.

Social competence is defined as an individual’s ability to possess social skills that conform to the expectations of others and the social rules of the group. It is crucial for Miklosi’s approach; therefore, it is ideal for social robots to gain social competence to be integrated into a human group. Research has compiled a list of necessary skills non-human agents should possess, but usage of the human model of behavior is flawed because social and cultural behaviors conceal the biological foundations of human social interactions. The study of behavioral models ties back to what makes us human. Biological aspects like bipedalism and opposable thumbs have helped robots appear and function more like humans. Primate models of behavior might explain the evolution of social behaviors in humans, but because robots do not exhibit biological evolutions, perhaps it would be useful to utilize human models of behavior to discuss robotic social competency.

Five approaches to human behavior exist in the realm of social psychology: biological, psychodynamic, behavioral, cognitive, and humanistic (McLeod2013). The biological and psychodynamic (unconscious, internal conflicts) models will not be discussed because the former cannot be directly applied and the latter remains extremely difficult to study in robots. The remaining are encompassed by developmental robotics. The field of developmental robotics has gained traction in the late 20th century and research have explored systematic forms of robot development; theories of human and animal development are implemented in robots. Evidence has shown that in order for machines to be truly intelligent, they need to acquire autonomous mental development like that of humans (Weng 1998). To propagate autonomous development in robots, robots should be designed according to its ecological working conditions, a developmental program must be instated and enforced at a robot’s inception, and its mind be “raised” over time (Weng 2001). Like human development, robots must learn to develop by navigating unknowns and experience open-ended learning. Darwin 7, a prototype developmental robot, was an example of how machines developed recognition of objects in set locations and showed a transition from simple to complex behaviors (Almassy 1998). SAIL, another developmental robot, navigated its environment by using its video cameras to recognize toys and reach them with the aid of a human robot-sitter. Learning is also reinforced with a “good” button or “bad” button that encourages and discourages behavior as SAIL freely navigates its own environment. When looking back at the three approaches to understanding human behavior, Darwin V and SAIL possess abilities to learn, process information through guidance, and grow. While robots do not fully exhibit all the aspects of human behavior, capabilities and progress indicate that they are on the path of becoming more socially aware and competent.

Technological advances have become incorporated into human life as we are seeing the emergence of machines that can resemble humans in physical, functional, and behavioral ways. What makes us human, like the examples of bipedalism and the opposable thumbs, can be found in machines as well, and are designed to carry out the same functions. Many of these machines also have the capability to adapt to their environments and learn from them, underscoring the human nature of growth and development. Underneath the flesh-like skin of Sophia the android lies a complex circuit of wires and hardware that grants its wielder an uncanny sentience that is so humanlike. Many disciplines have pondered the question of what makes us human and have established various standards encompassing philosophical to biological perspectives. Therefore, humans were the ones to define their own humanity. Now, they have the ability to instill these standards onto their own creations. As our machines become increasingly complex and contribute greatly towards productivity, it is important to assess how the humanization of our robots reflect our evolution and self-perceptions.

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