The future of human-robot interaction (including the rise of sex robots)

The future of human-robot interaction
The future of human-robot interaction

Robots are here, they are already part of our lives. And they will become increasingly more present in our lives, like it or not. This poses also some serious ethical and philosophical issues: robots are used in defense work, and robot or driverless cars are currently being developed.  And maybe you were not yet aware of the existence of sex robots: they do not live in sci-fi movies anymore, they are here. And this poses of course a number of ethical issues. “Eventually, culture will develop its own norms for how people will interact with robots with sexual functionality” told us Julie Carpenter, PhD, California Polytechnic State University (CalPoly), in this exclusive interview on robots, ethics, sex and technology. Read on.

Artificial intelligence and robots. Which direction are the researchers and scientists working, in order to ensure that the machines, as technologically advanced as they will be, remain machines and will not take control of our lives once they have reached a sufficient level of technological sophistication?

There is an uncontrollable aspect to any technology innovation, in terms of the motivations or agendas of people who might develop the concepts for unorthodox or unethical uses. Of course, you also cannot control the uses of a product or thing like a robot once it is in “out there” in the environment because the human users may also have unethical goals in mind.

However, it is great to begin talking about all kinds of possibilities now and throughout the time we live and work with robots. As a culture, we will develop new ways of interacting with robots and that includes all the ways we live, from home to work. Robots are used in defense work, and robot or driverless cars are being developed quickly in a rush to market. All kinds of things need to be in place for creating robots like these on a mass scale, so that is in infrastructure issue. But we also have many, many policy issues to work out at local, federal, and even worldwide levels.  You can almost pick any robot you hear about in the news–from home- delivery quadcopters to driverless cars or the idea of weaponized robots in war—and you can be sure non-governmental agencies, academics, politicians, and private industry are all very interested and invested in developing and enforcing various laws and policies. The ethical and philosophical issues about robots in our lives is equally important as the mechanics of building robots. In fact, you can say these are all parts of robot development, from the concrete thing that is a robot to the abstract ideas of what living with robots means for us as individuals and collectively in society.

You study the human-robots interaction from a humanistic, sociological and philosophical point of view. Do you feel like those who are actually working on these projects, engineers and scientists with a more technical and maybe less humanistic type of mind, are aware of these potential issues, or are they only focused on the technical aspects of what they are working on?

My field of human-robot interaction is interdisciplinary, and individuals may have backgrounds in engineering, artificial intelligence, design, psychology, philosophy, or other areas. Folks from human-robot interaction are often scientists and engineers too, or they otherwise bring valuable expertise to the development team; my own background is in learning sciences and communication. I speak for myself when I say I am always an advocate for interdisciplinary robot development teams. We need to balance the responsibilities of the mechanics of robotics with the impact of robotics on people, and also look at how, in turn, people who use robots influence or modify robot design or uses, in order to fully understand the ramifications and benefits of the new interaction phenomena at play. In my mind, that means using the expertise of many voices, including the people who will live and work with the final product, or robot, in whatever manner that is, which is why I focus on human-centered challenges of robot development, the things that happen around the point of interaction between person and robot.

I do think there is perhaps an increasing general awareness within robotics that some scientists and researchers, like myself, use approaches that are often called human-centered approaches, and solve problems in robotics by studying the interactions between people and robots, identifying challenges, and recommending options based on the findings. For a long time, there has been recognition among members of the robotics industry at large that the “human side” of human-robot interactions include ergonomics and design. When you begin to identify factors–like human behaviors and decision-making processes and culture—things that are enmeshed in the human-centered part of the robots’ use although less observable, these findings can also be integrated into design or personnel training or policy development in robotics. I think that is becoming an increasingly valuable asset to many robot development teams.

A part of your research is also involving the study of the future interactions between humans and robots from the sexual point of view. You are currently writing a chapter for the book Sex Robots: Social, Legal and Ethical Implications, MIT Press. Your chapter is titled “Deus Sex Machina: Loving Robot Sex Workers, and the allure of an insincere kiss”. Do you think that robots will play a role also in the sexual life of humans, and if yes, which are the main ethical issues you see arising?

Robots already are playing a role in in the sexual life of people via popular culture. There’s actually quite a list of sexualized robots in the history of film and literature, television and graphic novels. Even as fiction, these portrayals show examples of ways we might interact with a robot that could enhance or stimulate sexual pleasure, and often that scenario includes conflicting emotions about attraction to a robot, such as in the recent movie “Ex Machina.” We have even seen a representation of how someone might feel great affection for a disembodied operating system, as in the movie “Her.” In the movie “AI”, robot sex workers are integrated into culture in the form of the character “Gigolo Joe.” The plot of the 1987 movie “Cherry 2000” portrayed a man on a quest to repair his destroyed robot lover. In the mid-1960s, there was a television show called “My Living Doll” that portrayed the female robot character Rhoda in a sexualized manner, even though the show plots themselves were not risqué by today’s standards. These are just some examples of how robots have been portrayed on screen as significant sexual interests for people.

There are a lot of ethical issues in this arena; the mind almost reels at the possibility of introducing a robust, rich set of technologies like a sexualized robot into the world. We immediately tend to compare the idea of human-robot sexuality to a human-human model of sexuality. Instinctively, we understand that human-human sexuality is already incredibly complicated, and introducing a realistic or lifelike technology to interact with people sexually introduces a potentially really complicated extended and new set of emotional and cultural issues.

Initially, people will question the introduction of a technology that includes interacting with people in such physically and perhaps emotionally invasive ways. Eventually, culture will develop its own norms for how people will interact with robots with sexual functionality. Robots used as physical representations of a human user operating it at a distance may have one set of expectations about robosexual interaction, while a completely autonomous sexualized robot will create another arena of challenges for people to negotiate individually and as part of a culture.

Is a biological robot something we, or our next generations will be able to see, or is a robot made of cables and wheels – inside – by definition?

There is no single, agreed-upon definition of a robot. Let’s say for this conversation a robot is an embodied, intelligent, autonomous artificial system that interacts with us in humanlike ways (such as verbal communication or behaviors). It is more likely we as humans will incorporate robotness into us (eg., cyborgs) then incorporating biological systems into artificial ones for now because that is where the immediate or near focus of development appears to be. As humans, we have situations –medical, vital, or otherwise—where  we believe augmenting our bodies with some technology is beneficial in some circumstances. I think it is less obvious what the advantages might be for incorporating biological systems into mechanical ones, outside of some far-future scenarios.

Would a mechanical system with biological parts integrated within it also be categorized as a robot? Actually, the word roboti was coined in the 1921 Karel Čapek play RUR, and the word translates from the original Czech as meaning something akin to drudgery or menial laborer. But the robots in Čapek’s play did, in fact, have biological systems, too, and were even clone-like; the word robot has evolved over time to commonly refer to purely mechanical systems. Words can change again, and new words come into being. It will probably be useful to create categories among the different intelligent systems purely for the sake of discussion, as well as to distinguish between systems and their differences in order to explore and understand each one, and how the systems work together: robot, cyborg, and…whatever we decide to call entities that are more machine than human in their physicalness, but incorporate aspects of biology and machine.

How long will it take, in your opinion, before “Blade Runner Style” tests will be necessary in order to distinguish between a real human, and an almost perfect robotic copy?

I think one of the first questions may be more subtle: Why will it be necessary to distinguish between a human and a robot?

When we think about that question in very specific ways, it becomes clear that when robots become that indistinguishable from people in terms of apparent sentience, intelligence, appearance, behaviors, and other things we recognize as “human” traits, will we truly live with robots or will we separate humanness from robotness in meaningful ways? Now, at this time, we can list reasons robots should be regarded as something other than us, lesser, or at least different enough that we feel we should regard them skeptically in some circumstances. However, a reaction to robots that are so humanlike is rarely discussed as a potentially positive topic, and usually it is presented as a thorny set of ethical dilemmas, which it will obviously be as society adjusts to these robots being normal in our world.

How long will it take before robots become so believable as something resembling a human that we feel the need to test or demarcate them from humans? At the pace of current development and interest in these types of robots, I’d say we are closer to those models in our near future than we ever were before, clearly. How long before we see these robots integrated into our lives at a level immersive enough we feel the need to determine who “us” is versus who is “them”? I’m not sure that categorization will ever stop once it begins. As humans, we feel an intrinsic need to identify other things around us and determine if they are safe or dangerous. I think it’s possible we will begin demarcating robots as robots much sooner than when they actually are totally indistinguishable from people because of this inherent need of ours to identify and recognize others in order to be comfortable with these others. When would we use a test like that and why? I like to think about these questions in tandem with the idea of pinpointing the moment in time a test like Bladerunner’s Voight-Kampf one is deemed useful or necessary.

We would like to thank Julie Carpenter, PhD California Polytechnic State University (CalPoly) Research Fellow, “Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group.” The Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group is a non-partisan organization focused on risk, ethical, and social concerns related to new sciences and technologies.

Alessio Cristianini


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