Sunday, June 8, 2014


Ready for robots?


A Japanese billionaire unveiled a robot called Pepper who supposedly reacts to human emotions. The robot not only perceives that someone is sad or happy or troubled but also responds appropriately. The robot has been developed in cooperation with a French firm, Aldebaran. Similar efforts are underway in the United States. They will sell you a robot to babysit your children for $300.
A 2012 movie “Robot and Frank” anticipates these technological innovations but with a humorous twist. A one time burglar, now old and at times forgetful, is given a robot to attend to him. The old man trains the robot to be a splendidly competent cat burglar. Could Pepper do that?
Not surprisingly reactions to these developments vary a good deal. Some people are appalled. Others see a large number of opportunities where emotional robots – mechanical creatures that perceive human emotions and react appropriately – could do a great deal of good. They could be babysitters, they might mind children in study hall. If your child is sick, you don't need to stay home from work. Get the robot to sit with your feverish child. After you retire and, like Frank you are becoming forgetful, and you are lonely and depressed, no problem. Bring in the empathetic robot to make appropriate clucking noises when you sit in your chair with tears rolling down your cheeks as you think of good times long ago.
Personally, the project gives me the creeps. It reminds me of a movie George Lucas made when he was still a student, called THX 1138. It is a science fiction film depicting a future dictatorship where human beings, heavily drugged, do work and not much else. Their sexual impulses are suppressed by drugs. Love between human beings does not exist. At the end of the day, the workers may stop off at a therapy booth, which looks suspiciously like an old phone booth. One can go in and talk about what troubles one and a sympathetic voice will respond with "tell me more" or "that must feel really bad." The camera moves back so that you do not merely see the worker but also the back of the booth. A tape player is attached. The sympathetic murmurings are random messages from a tape machine.
The therapy booth is a machine. It produces sounds that seem appropriate but it does not in any sense respond to emotions. Today's robot is a great deal more sophisticated. The technology is in many ways very impressive. But the robot is not human.
The robot lacks an inner life of its own. There is a great deal of difference between responding appropriately to someone else's emotions and having emotions of one's own. Human beings, unlike these robots, do not always respond appropriately. We get tired of whiny children. We feel that all the children want from us is more affection but they are not giving very much back and we ourselves also feel isolated and underappreciated. It is not always possible to respond sympathetically to your demented parents about whom you have harbored ambivalent feelings for much of your life. Some days they just make you very angry and you yell at them.
The sympathetic robot does not do that. It is quite saintly. As programmed it will be sympathetic when you are sad.
It is however not human sympathy.
That is what makes all this so creepy. Caretaking and caretakers are in short supply in our society because it is very difficult to make money off taking care of children and the elderly. What does not make money tends to be neglected in our society because making money is our main occupation.
A mechanical babysitter that costs $300 soon pays for itself. The economic outlook for robots, currently priced at less than $2000, is quite brilliant for taking care of mom or dad when they get really old.
It promises to be one more area of life where we sacrifice our humanity for the sake of making money.