Thursday, May 08, 2008

Lifelike Robots

Reflecting on predictions of glossy futuristic technology envisioned in cartoons and utopian SF, I’ve decided I don’t want the flying car, after all. Imagine the chaos if two of those collided in mid-air (not unlikely, considering the way many people drive). What I want is the household robot. Robert Heinlein’s DOOR INTO SUMMER predicted commercially viable cleaning robots by the 1970s. Up to now, so far as I know, all we have in this country is that self-propelling vacuum cleaner, the Roomba. The Japanese, however, are working on more complex automatons. I found several articles by Googling “Japan robots emotion.” (Give it a try.) Engineering students at a Tokyo university are experimenting with robots that have rubbery faces capable of simulating six emotional states in response to key words: anger, fear, sadness, happiness, surprise, and disgust. The project leader says that in order to work around people, “robots need to handle complex social tasks.” In Japan, robots already perform many varied jobs, not only factory work, but such tasks as acting as receptionists, serving tea, and spoon-feeding the elderly. Japanese culture, according to this article, views robots as “friendly helpers.” With an aging population, they expect to rely on automata to replace human employees in the workforce and care for the aged. On the emotional front, currently available are a soft, dog-shaped device and a furry character called Paro, resembling a baby seal, both designed for “pet” therapy in nursing homes.

Even robots that aren’t cuddly, much less as human-like as the maid on THE JETSONS, seem to evoke an anthropomorphizing response. People get attached to them. I read somewhere that Roomba owners have been known to name and adorn their robot vacuum cleaners. A talking robot on wheels was once lent to a family for research (according to one of those online articles); when it had to be taken away for an upgrade, the child of the family cried. “People aren’t going to be able to throw away robots when they break,” one researcher says. How small a step is that kind of reaction from considering the robots so nearly human that we’d feel guilty about “enslaving” them—especially if they do advance to the point of having some degree of intellect and consciousness (or the ability to simulate it)?

This quandary comes to life in a delightful poem, “Too Human by Half,” by Suzette Haden Elgin in her recent book TWENTY-ONE NOVEL POEMS, a collection of narrative poetry on SF themes. supplies elder-care robots constructed in roughly human shape so the aged clients will feel comfortable with them. The problem arises when the machine wears out. “Mama” protests angrily, “Replace JANE?. . . Just because she’s getting OLD?” The solution: When DearCompanion designed its next line of assistive robots “they made every one of the units look exactly like a broom.” You need this poetry collection. Really you do. :) It even includes suggestions for discussion topics. Information for ordering the book is on Elgin’s home page:

No comments:

Post a Comment