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University of Michigan School of Information


Humanizing robots: Time to put on the brakes?

Tuesday, 10/24/2017

Recently in Canada, a man was arrested for possessing a “sex robot” that looked too much like a child. 

Startling, yes. But the fact that Canadian authorities must decide if having sex with an underage-looking “sex robot” is illegal – or should be – is probably even more so.  

This is one of several cautionary robot tales cited by Lionel Robert, Associate Professor of Information at the University of Michigan School of Information (UMSI) in his paper, “The Growing Problem of Humanizing Robots,” recently published in International Robotics & Automation Journal.

Other examples Robert noted included a study illustrating that soldiers can became so attached to their military bomb disposal robots that they may hesitate to send the machines into battle, and that robots are being designed as personal companions so that people may have robots “instead of real friends,” Robert says.   

In related studies, Robert adds, “we learned that the more similar the robot is to humans, the more likely you are to work with the robot, trust it, and accept having the robot replace your friend on the assembly line.”

Once the focus of science fiction, robots that look, talk, act and even seem to empathize like humans are now reality. They’re playing an increasingly uncharted role in human history. 

That calls for some reflection, Robert believes. 

He isn’t saying people are deliberately designing evil robots. Rather, Robert explains, the development of artificial intelligence (AI), which perhaps takes it most concrete form in robots, has been so gradual, it may be difficult to recognize when something crosses the line – especially when such lines have yet to be identified.

“We didn’t know [about sex robots that look like children] until they showed up,” Robert says. “That’s what concerns me. We won’t know these problems until they’re here. The difference between science fiction and science is time. 

“When designing robots,” he adds, “maybe we should put some brakes on. I wouldn’t want a robot to look too human. I may want it to ‘talk,’ but sound mechanical, too, so if we asked it to go blow itself up, I wouldn’t feel so bad.” 

Meanwhile, new, ever-more-lifelike robots continue to be developed and produced. In some homes, families are getting pet robot dogs. In South Korea, someone designed a housecleaner robot shaped like a woman. 

“People complained, so they made ones shaped like men,” Robert says, “and no one is buying them.”

Read the full article here.