Fri, Dec 25, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Living with robots that ‘feel’

Ethical problems with robots start with issues of labor and continue with mutual harm

By Peter Singer and Agata Sagan

Last month, Gecko Systems announced that it had been running trials of its “fully autonomous personal companion home care robot,” also known as a carebot, designed to help elderly or disabled people to live independently. A woman with short-term memory loss broke into a big smile, the company reported, when the robot asked her, “Would you like a bowl of ice cream?” The woman answered “yes,” and presumably the robot did the rest.

Robots already perform many functions, from making cars to defusing bombs — or, more menacingly, firing missiles. Children and adults play with toy robots, while vacuum-cleaning robots are sucking up dirt in a growing number of homes and — as evidenced by YouTube videos — entertaining cats. There is even a Robot World Cup, though judging by the standard of the event held in Graz, Austria, last summer, soccer players need not feel threatened just yet (chess, of course, is a different matter).

Most of the robots being developed for home use are functional in design — Gecko System’s home-care robot looks rather like the Star Wars robot R2-D2. Honda and Sony are designing robots that look more like the same movie’s “android” C-3PO. There are already some robots, though, with soft, flexible bodies, human-like faces and expressions and a large repertoire of movement. Hanson Robotics has a demonstration model called Albert, whose face bears a striking resemblance to that of Albert Einstein.

Will we soon get used to having humanoid robots around the home? Noel Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robotics at the University of Sheffield, has predicted that busy parents will start employing robots as babysitters. What will it do to a child, he asks, to spend a lot of time with a machine that cannot express genuine empathy, understanding or compassion? One might also ask why we should develop energy-intensive robots to work in one of the few areas — care for children or elderly people — in which people with little education can find employment.

In his book Love and Sex with Robots, David Levy goes further, suggesting that we will fall in love with warm, cuddly robots — and even have sex with them. (If the robot has multiple sexual partners, just remove the relevant parts, drop them in disinfectant and, voila, no risk of sexually transmitted diseases!)

But what will the presence of a “sexbot” do to the marital home? How will we feel if our spouse starts spending too much time with an inexhaustible robotic lover?

A more ominous question is familiar from novels and movies: Will we have to defend our civilization against intelligent machines of our own creation? Some consider the development of superhuman artificial intelligence inevitable, and expect it to happen no later than 2070. They refer to this moment as “the singularity,” and see it as a world-changing event.

Eliezer Yudkowsky, one of the founders of The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, believes that singularity will lead to an “intelligence explosion” as super-intelligent machines design even more intelligent machines, with each generation repeating this process. The more cautious Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence has set up a special panel to study what it calls “the potential for loss of human control of computer-based intelligences.”

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