Welcoming robots into our lives

A major new European exhibition explores the ethical and political questions surrounding our growing use of robots.

Robots are all around us: in warehouses, factories, healthcare, shops, the home, and even in our pockets (hello, Siri). On the whole, we have easily accepted the increasingly pervasive impact they are having on our work and personal lives. But, as they become more lifelike at home and at work, how should we treat them?

The increasing adoption of robots is raising a number of interesting discussions that might have been pure science fiction just a few years ago. Discussions surrounding robot ethics, laws and taxation are already taking place. And, as we continue to augment ourselves with mechanical components (pacemakers, artificial joints, replacement limbs and organs), and machines gain more and more human characteristics, where and how do we draw the line between human and machine?

The renowned Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhin, Germany, is hosting an exhibition called “Hello, Robot”, looking at many of these issues. It contains domestic and industrial robots in use today, alongside examples from film and literature. You’ll find ABB robots of all sizes in the exhibition, including large models 3D printing a bridge, to the smaller but game-changing YuMi® (the world’s first truly collaborative robot, designed to be a colleague who can help you be more productive as it works alongside you).[1]

For more insight, I got in touch with Nell Watson, an internationally respected futurist and engineer, and senior scientific advisor to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Future Society AI initiative. I starting by asking her if we are beginning to consider robots as friends and co-workers.

Nell Watson: I think that is indeed the case. We are going to work increasingly in concert with machine intelligences. They will guide us in our social interactions and our decision making, and we will trust them to care for us. An AI may also present as a human, or vice-versa, and this is sometimes described as a centaur. Today there are many bots that one may interact with, without ever knowing whether one is dealing with a human or a machine.

CL: What ethical dilemmas are we likely to encounter as robots become more pervasive in our private and work lives?

Nell Watson: A lot of people ask “How can we keep control of AI”. I’m not sure that control is the answer. Controlling pets and children isn’t really much fun. We simply want them to stay safe and out of mischief. We must be prepared to give AIs and robots increasing free reign as they become more sophisticated. We may also see them gifted to the commons, or even granted a de facto status of emancipation, owned by no-one. We have few legal precedents for managing these concerns.

CL: From a design perspective, are robots going to be endowed with more “human” characteristics?

Nell Watson: As robots get more sophisticated, they present more and more realistically, in terms of speech intonation, appearance, movement, etc. However, there is a tradeoff due to the Uncanny Valley effect, whereby hyper-realism promotes an instinctive revulsion – think of zombies – something human and yet wrong. Some people experience a powerful visceral reaction to something that moves too much like a human.

For this reason, even realistic and expressive robots are likely to have some very non-human features that make them seem comfortably like a machine. In fact, machines are likely to look childlike. This should help to make them less threatening, whilst protecting them from abuse from humans.

I am Co-Founder of a project to enable this at www.openeth.org, a crowd-sourced computable analysis of ethical dilemmas, for humans and machines. We believe that the future of a thriving humanity in an artificially intelligent world is predicated on the ability to create moral and ethical machines.

ABB is the global sponsor of “Hello Robot”, at the Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhin, Germany until the 14th of May. It then moves to Austria, Belgium and, in 2018, Switzerland.

[1] ABB’s robots also have a life outside of the factory, and have been spotted DJing, starring in music videos, joining Lady Gaga’s band and entertaining cruise passengers, amongst other things.

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About the author

Conor Lennon

Formerly a broadcaster and communications consultant, I am currently based in Zurich as Global Special Projects Manager for ABB. I like to write about issues surrounding technology, sustainable development and society.
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