Wednesday, February 15, 2017

My Experienced-based Cultural Truths About Robots

 When I demonstrate robots the most frequent question I am asked is: “What does it do?”

My – admittedly, my somewhat flippant answer is: “What would you like it to do?”

The time has come to recognize that the advance of humanoid robots while presently still only at a nascent stage, has already achieved amazingly great things. Clearly though, people are trying to understand and grapple with the very idea of robots as a reality. Not just where do they fit in society? But where will they fit in my life? How will I end up interacting with them? Will I be forced to interact with them? Are they nice to be around? What role will they play in my life?  Will they take my job? What does it mean to own and use one? 

Most of the questions I get quickly arrive at the same personal level that I remember surrounded the reactions and responses to the advent of personal computers. But this go around with robots as the next new interface to knowledge, information and services has a different edge to it.

It seems that with robots we tend to want to test and probe more about the humanized traits they display. We didn’t do this so much with personal computers. They were quickly seen as friendly and as an ally and in the end a machine. And, they were deemed controllable. Robots stir up a different reaction. Does it think by itself? Does it feel the emotion it senses? Can it run off and do its own thing? Does it know what I am thinking? I was once even asked if one felt sad being left alone?
The reasons these reactions are different from the initial personal computer experience is driven by the fact that robots are intentionally designed to evoke a human-like quality. And yes, they can become engaging, empathetic and endearing. But perhaps most unsettling to some, is that robots have mobility and a certain display of autonomy. They can move about and navigate their surroundings. They turn their heads and look at you when you speak, and move their arms and hands and fingers. Some individuals I have met feel that maybe this ‘thing’ can and might ‘chase them down’. “Can I hide from it?” they ask. At the core of most of this cultural and social formulation attitudes about robots is the sense of the foreboding by many that surrounds robots in that they will be replacing people in many roles and jobs.

A lot of this emotive reaction has already given rise in Europe with the Economic Union (EU) developing ‘civil law rules for robotics’. This is of course in anticipation of the impact of and the quantity of robots we will encounter in our future society. While in and of itself a good idea to think about and consider such policies, it tends to contribute to the general uneasiness about robots in that they seemingly have already achieved a ‘lobbying status’ in governmental bodies.

In debates and discussions about these issues I inevitably return to my actual experience. When you see a child suffer less pain and stress when facing medical procedures because they are accompanied by a medical assistant robot that they trust; when you see seniors becoming actively engaged via a tele-presence robot reducing the life-threatening impact of loneliness and isolation; when you see young students in a classroom becoming excited and engaged with learning new math and science concepts and skills; when you see the elderly in a skilled nursing facility become animated over attending an exercise session led by a robot; when you see a robot contribute to enhanced care decisions and performance results in a hospital labor ward; when you see an autistic child achieve lasting social improvement progress you begin to sense the true cultural and social impact of robots…and it is good.