On the 20th of June, ‘Pepper’, the humanoid robot, went on sale. In just 60 seconds he was a sell out – 1000 models, at $1600 per month, gone to a select group of delighted Japanese consumers.
Standing at just under four feet tall, and weighing in at 61 pounds, Pepper can read emotions, recognise tones of voice and will try “to make you happy”. Yes, Pepper is closer to human than any robot to date.
“Pepper is at ease when he is with people he knows, happy when praised and scared when the lights go down.” Kaname Hayashi, Softbank’s project manager
So, how do you get the most from Pepper? Will he learn to clean, cook, shop, educate, feed the cat – look after your kids? Will they love him like the family dog – or like a person – does it even matter?
From the moment we’re born, humans look to bond. From favourite toys as kids, to family, friends and chance relationships as adults. Is it any surprise that we’re unable to resist the draw of an intelligent being – even one that aims to be a stronger, smarter – better – version of ourselves?
Empathy – emotion. The characteristics that separate us from even our smartest tech. Characteristics that some argue make us weak. Our inherent lack of ability to control the irrational feelings and thoughts we have, provides real insight into the huge issues we’re going to face when re-creating human traits within advanced synthetic beings.
Back in 1999, Sony released a robotic dog called Aibo, a canine companion that didn’t require any walking or poop-scooping and only ate electricity. It sold 150,000 units, despite it’s $2,000 price tag. Turns out some owners became remarkably attached, which, as one reporter put it “makes it even more sad that Sony has stopped repairing Aibo. Slowly but surely, they’re all dying”. Dying? We really cannot help ourselves, sad indeed, RIP Aibo.
Turns out it’s not just ‘cute’ that we fall for. Reports surfaced some time ago about soldiers who became so emotionally attached to their military bomb disposal robots that they were holding funerals for them upon their death…
What next? When will we have to start choosing between our beloved devices and the life of another human? And when will they start deciding which human to save on our behalf? What program will they use for that? And who will be running that programme?
Imagine the damage a humanoid militant robot could cause? You’ve already seen the gun carrying drone on youtube right? Not to mention the MIT Cheetah…
An intelligent computer will be able to prompt emotions based on its own thought processes, just like the joy or satisfaction experienced by solving a mathematical problem. In fact, as long as it is allowed to communicate with the outside world, there is no major obstacle to a computer feeling true emotions of its own – happiness, sadness, surprise, disappointment, fear, resentment – anger…
Hang one, are we not just getting carried away with our own paranoia? Robotic advancement isn’t just about the ‘Peppers’. Years of sic-fi movies have conditioned us to think of robots as humanoid replicants. But there really is no need to produce androids that look like us.
Darwin uncovered the reason we have evolved the way we have. But in a connected world, why do we need a replacement for a human at all? Surely each device should just be programmed to do the task intended?
If you need your grass cut – would you create a robot human to push a lawnmower or just make an automatic lawnmower that knows the best way to tend to and maintain your perfect lawn? Do you get the robot to fly the plane – or does the plane just fly itself?
The taxi drivers might be upset with Uber, but wait until the driver-less taxis’ appear. Friendly and comfortable – bad driving, hard-braking and texting at the wheel will be a thing of the past – can’t wait.
Truth is, sometimes there really is no benefit to having an emotive, unpredictable and limited capacity human involved in a process.
Consider banking. There are hundreds of regulations stopping bank staff from accessing your data, purchase details and spending habits. But a bot – i.e. not a human, could easily read and review your transactions, automatically categorise your purchases and then send you a notification;
“hey James, another Vanilla Latte? That’s $46 you have spent this month…”
So, we all crave a personal touch, but how many people does the average ‘relationship’ banker have? 500? 1000? The ‘relationship’ is a fallacy – what are you really missing by being better connected?