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The Future of Robotics is… Cute?

This week, Siobhan is driving the conversation with her questions on robot-human relationships, with responses from Gunther, Sasha, and Len.

Have you seen those crazy videos of Japanese humanoid robots that can mimic human expressions taking us closer to the seamless humanoid robots of AI, Bladerunner and Alien? Creepy huh? That’s why the future of human/robot interaction and the integration of robots in everyday life may be driven by the ‘cute’ factor as much as labour needs or sex. Think Wall-E, R2D2, those cute robots that are a marketer’s dream. Alexander Reben at the MIT Media Lab amped up adorable helplessness in Boxie and found that, yup, people respond to a big-eyed, plaintive cardboard box on caterpillar tracks, crying ‘I need help!‘ ‘Pick me up so I can see you!’

With Siri in your pocket, what kinds of interactions will we be having with robotics in the near future? What interactions are already seamlessly integrated? Do we need to have an animated animatronic presence to really engage? Or will we be having meaningful relationships with the ubiquitous computing in our refrigerators and our cars? Will there be any difference?

Latitude Research’s Robots School study found that kids today “think of technology as fundamentally human: as a social companion that can entertain, motivate, and empower them in various contexts.” Is the perceived difference in value of a human relationship vs. a relationship with a robot going to be a generational distinction?

[Len]: I predict that robots and other electronic devices will simply be carriers for a singular artificial entity. Think HAL 9000 but less villainous. A humanistic personality (that we customize of course) that jumps from one physical location to the other depending on where, when, and how we need to interact with our environment. When the program jumps into the vehicle of a “robot” it will not seem any more human residing in the human-like structure, but rather will just have a different set of capabilities at that time. The robot will simply be a shell. In many ways, Apple is a current and simple example of this. The operating system and files remain fairly constant, but they function in different ways depending on the point of access. We’re not far away. The operating systems just don’t quite have a personality yet.

[Gunther]: There have been quite a few studies over over the last few years that point to personalized behaviors that basically leave individuals confined to their own set of evolving, “anti-social” behaviors. Some of this has to do with the sheer size of the population, and some to do with the “hyperconnectivity” of our interactions. I actually believe that each us will reach a point soon in which we will develop personal operating systems, and those systems will interact with other systems, the amalgam of which will represent a symbiosis between organic intelligence (thought process, sensory stimulation and creative energy) and computable intelligence (robotic extensions or expressions of human behavior). The results should enable humanity to take a long, earnest look in its own face, and do something about it that will be different from what we’ve experienced in recorded history.

[Sasha]: I can’t help but conjure up images of Marshall McLuhan in my mind as I try to think about a similar relationship we might have with robots as we do today with humans. The reality is that the medium is the message here and looking at the nature of our interactions through social means online only gives us a glimpse of the changes that a technology filter has on our humanity. In the robotic instance we move even further away from human dynamism with our interactions running through multiple technology filters (sensors, hardware and software) to get to the real human, the engineer. If you want to imagine what interactions might be like just build a few permutations from the binary basement of an engineers head and watch the fun unfold. Sure we can build in evolutionary algorithms and feedback loops but the nature of the interaction will change, and we will change from it, given the current trajectory of robotics.

Have we already passed a tipping point in our acceptance or relationships with the non-human/robotic without recognizing it? Will the near future see a continuum of relationships characterized by value of experience rather than categories of who or what is the agent? This seems to be the scenario of countless dystopian films – is that a warning we should be paying attention to? What if we start loving our robots as if they were our children? Our lovers? Will we be less human?

[Len]: Presently, we’re having relationships with ourselves, not with other entities. Digital devices are built to be extensions of us (humanity). Even with programs like Siri for the iPhone which clearly tries to mimic a conversation between humans, we still know that all the words coming from the digital entity were preprogrammed by a team of Apple developers. Despite million of combinations of humanistic phrases that exist as outputs in different digital devices, we subconsciously always sense that a program is being executed. Therefore, I don’t believe a relationship exists today. The day we start to sense that one is being developed, I predict humanity will find it very startling.

[Gunther]: I think we’ve bottomed out in our ability to become less human, or perhaps inhumane. In other words, I’m not sure things can get much worse… We can only “evolve upward” from here (or at least I hope this is the case). I think we need re-stimulate our senses, and tap into things like the occult to re-establish our frontiers with creativity. I think machines can help us do this. I also think that robotics may allow us to develop a new found respect for objects – particularly social objects – that manifest from the relationships we build through human-machine computability and gestural or haptic or “extra-sensoral” expressions.

[Sasha]: Interesting question that delves deep into the psyche. I would argue that we already have a range of relationships with the inanimate objects from our favorite shirt, our home, our car or our phone. Heck, we even attribute emotion to a can of Coca Cola which change the nature of our consumption of a fizzy drink. That being said we have become quite good at being able to hold a range of relationships of multiple types. The question I have lies more in the quantity of interactions and emotive relationships we can have without affecting the others. Do we have an upper limit? WIll the number of emotive associations dilute the others and in turn make us less human? If we use social as a proxy, especially in the way that we fracture our attention in real-life social settings, I think we may have a problem. Perhaps a robotic version of ourselves can handle all the non-real life relationships so we can focus our bags of meat on our real lives.

33 year old Le Trung built himself a fembot, Aiko, in 2007 in his parent’s basement in Brampton, Ontario. Designed to look and feel human, Aiko is bilingual (Japanese and English), can read newspapers and recognize 300+ faces. Skin sensors can distinguish between a caress and a tickle, registered in her responses, and yes, she has nipples, a vagina and sensors in that vagina, though her creator says he hasn’t ever, well you know. Should sex with robots be stigmatized? Given the misery of the global sex trade, disease transmission, and the pragmatic reality that not everyone has a relationship or wants one, can we imagine a near future where sex toys talk back?

[Len]: Men and Women often disagree on this point, but sex and love are two completely different things. If robots can help alleviate the sexual atrocities that take place around the world, I’m all for the idea of physical needs being met by artificial entities. When it comes to love or relationships the situation is completely different. Do people see these digital beings as partners, pets, inanimate objects? What if robots continue to evolve beyond what Le Trung’s protype can do, and more importantly, feel? It’s still hard for many of us to comprehend that someday we may able to create artificial being that can develop their own feelings, but if that ever takes place, the question society will have to decide is whether it will be ethical to build sexual function into those “type” of bots given the potential for them to be victimized.

[Gunther]: Le Trung has introduced a memetic approach to sexual objectification that might produce positive results given the dehumanization of those in the sex trade and those who engage in it. Since many fantasies seem to reach thresholds that force a “next level up”, perhaps memetics and robotics can introduce fantasy levels that challenge the human mind to actually develop a compass towards what is excessive or what is ordain or what is just simply a moral imposition. A fembot in and of itself could be a mirror to one’s sexual soul.

[Sasha]: In an interesting TED talk Cynthia Gallop talks about the effects of the access to pornography has had on her sexual relationships. As a result seeing before experiencing young men have a distorted view on what is acceptable during sex. Enter the world of robotics. If you believe in any of the neuroplasticity research around the abstract associations that people create with sex there is a possibility to dehumanize the entire experience depending upon what comes first. When we interject new media, in the Mcluhan sense, into primal facilities of our humanity we run massive risks in demonizing our species. Pleasure and reproduction are associated for a reason … and it has nothing to do with achieving a level 15 status with Fembot 4.

  • siobhan o’flynn, phd

    Here’s my thought on a generational distinction:

    I think we may be seeing a generational difference emerging now and it’s not Prensky’s distinction between ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants.’ The Latitude Study’s findings was that kids ‘instinctively expect technology to respond to them in very human-like ways—to motivate and empower them, often serving as a sort of companion, rather than merely a tool for solving specific problems.’ Their test group of 348 children ages 8-12 flags questions as to how a generation of toddlers playing with touch screen and responsive interfaces are conceptualizing these tools. A friend’s 4 year old daughter views the iPhone as omniscient because her dad is always saying, “I don’t know; let’s ask the iPhone.” The viral video of the baby searching for the touch screen response from magazines which ends with this: “Steve Jobs has coded a part of her OS.” I would explore the idea that kids under 7 in developed nations are growing up with a different, potentially profoundly different relationship with technology, going back to Heidegger’s concept of techne as not just the tool but an understanding of mastery of the tool, and a relationship with technology and by extension with the natural world that is expressed through technology. Viewing technology as “a social companion,” where technology is ubiquitous and responsive, is likely shaping a cultural imaginary that is distinct from the cultural imaginary and cultural memories that have shaped me.

    I once tried to list American & European movies or novels with optimistic visions of the future and the only one I could come up with was Star Trek. The pervasive, consistent vision of the dystopic, future menaced by technology tells us something about the Western cultural imaginary of the past. Is that what kids have today?

  • DanielHonigman

    Great discussion. Personally, I think there’s more utility in “cute” robots, as opposed to realistic ones. I think people get creeped out by robots that look TOO much like people. Maybe there are similarities to how many folks flock to casual games vs. realistic, console-type games.

    You know who you should talk to about this? Amber Case; she spoke about robot anthropology at TED a few years back.

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  • john burke

    i prefer boxxy

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