Making Robots Human: Are We Ready?


Advertisements

It’s a long-awaited promise the Future made back in the 1950s–someday, we’ll all have robots to cook, to clean, to perform the tasks we can’t be bothered or interested to do ourselves. And in some ways, this promise has held true: witness the Roomba, which vacuums away while we play WoW and take the kids to soccer. And more recently, the development of eerily not-quite-human androids has brought us teetering at the edge of the Uncanny Valley. Do we venture forth and hope the unpalatable silicone faces of our robot counterparts can be improved both in movement and appearance, or should we set up camp on this side, where robots are shiny and decidedly unhuman, just the way we’ve always known them?

While videos of Hiroshi Ishiguro and his Geminoid twin are fun to watch, the ever-improving approximation of ourselves in robotics can (and should) give us pause. Newer Geminoid models are even better at replicating emotion and have slightly more natural movement. What are we doing, and are we ready for this? And where lie the boundaries between man and machine, if and when we reach the point that we look and move in the same ways?

Chris Carroll’s feature in the August issue of National Geographic, “Making Robots Human“, explores the future of human-like robotics, touching on issues of ethics, aesthetics, and the moral implications of non-humans serving in human roles. From childcare provider to chef, roboticists have big plans for these human-like machines, which raises the question: how human is too human?

The Actroid androids are part of a new generation of robots, artificial beings designed to function not as programmed industrial machines but as increasingly autonomous agents capable of taking on roles in our homes, schools, and offices previously carried out only by humans. The foot soldiers of this vanguard are the Roomba vacuums that scuttle about cleaning our carpets and the cuddly electronic pets that sit up and roll over on command but never make a mess on the rug. More sophisticated bots may soon be available that cook for us, fold the laundry, even babysit our children or tend to our elderly parents, while we watch and assist from a computer miles away.

“In five or ten years robots will routinely be functioning in human environments,” says Reid Simmons, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon.

Such a prospect leads to a cascade of questions. How much everyday human function do we want to outsource to machines? What should they look like? Do we want androids like Yume puttering about in our kitchens, or would a mechanical arm tethered to the backsplash do the job better, without creeping us out? How will the robot revolution change the way we relate to each other? A cuddly robotic baby seal developed in Japan to amuse seniors in eldercare centers has drawn charges that it could cut them off from other people. Similar fears have been voiced about future babysitting robots. And of course there are the halting attempts to create ever willing romantic androids. Last year a New Jersey company introduced a talking, touch-sensitive robot “companion,” raising the possibility of another kind of human disconnect.

In short: Are we ready for them? Are they ready for us?

If there’s a limit to our acceptance of machines-as-humans in daily life, the time is ripe for discovering exactly where the scales tip. With Yume and Geminoids and Actroids, oh my, the Future has made good on its promise for robots. Whether or not we want them has yet to be determined.

Read Chris Carroll’s “Making Robots Human” on National Geographic, and pick up a copy of the August issue of the magazine, on newsstands today.

All images ©Max Aguilera-Hellweg/National Geographic

The excerpt featured above and all accompanying photography are reprinted here with permission from National Geographic. “Making Robots Human” and these images are in the August issue of National Geographic magazine, on newsstands July 28.





17 Responses to Making Robots Human: Are We Ready?

  1. My biggest issue is the loss of jobs that humans can easily do and get paid for. This is worse than outsourcing to other countries. I love the idea of robots…somewhat. The ever present them of robot apocalypse looms in the back of my brain. I am sure there will be many robot related accidents in the beginning and feel that robot babysitters should be held off on until the robots 'learn'(are programmed) to not accidently crush, hurt or neglect the babies or children.

    Also GPS in every robot, please, none of this I. Robot stuff where we don't know where they hell the robot went.

    • The loss of jobs is regrettable but I am sure this is the same argument entrenched threshers made when millwrights first started making water wheels. Failing to progress technologically because there is a lack of human jobs only ensures that you are, or soon will be a technology backwater.

      Additionally you don't want GPS in every robot(which it will almost certainly have), you want Geolocation which is more difficult, You have to have a connection back to a satellite, cell tower, internet, or phone line to constantly know where each robot is. GPS just tells the robot where it is.
      And who gets to look up robot locations. What if I am using my robot to build a secure bunker for me and my family on my 100+ acre farm and I don't want anyone(not the company, nor through proxy the government) to know where it is who gets to pull that info?
      Now let me get my Aluminum Foil hat and wait for a response ;)

      • (I have to rewrite my reply!)
        A water wheel cannot get a simple upload and be a police officer one day, a teacher another and a factory worker the next. Sure, its well and good if the robots take the dangerous jobs, and fight fires, and such but there are hard working people out there that can't compete with robots. What are they going to do? all become robot technicians?

        Having robots taking over all sorts of jobs is much worse than water wheels, the company only has to pay for the robots, not paying wages.

        • I was going to post this as a comment, but I think It would work as a reply to yours. I haven't done much study on robotics, but I know the general state of things. Have you heard of peak oil? When we finally reach a limit in growth using petro-energy, and can only power what all ready exists by dipping into reserves. We would no longer be able to, cheaply, expand factory based environments that require a huge amount of crude oil to exist. I'm not saying this will happen before robots can make it to a consumer market, but it will happen probably when we are about to reach the hayday and true potential of robotics. Say, android police officers and the like you mention. We will peak out, carry on making domestic robotics and basic public service robotics, but as reserves dwindle it will be financially impossible to expand robotics as well as most technology that requires a lot of petrol in the process. We'll still have our nano-bots and tech implants, but if we don't find a way to get robotic production off reliance on petrol, we'll never see what you describe.

          Plus, from my view I fell you are seeing it the wrong way. We will always, as a race, find new markets to put our collective time, resources, and desires into. There are many jobs that come with the robot market as well as all other emerging tech markets. Programming and general IT will be one of the largest job markets existing soon enough. Robots will never eliminate need for people in health care, and other places where genuine human emotions are needed. Of course, once A.I. is a possibility, then that changes the game there. Anyway, what I really want to say, is that robots may help us move on from our materialism by making working for mad$$$ very mundane to future generations, and they will switch interest into creative struggles and the big questions. We'll reform education through the internet and make it completely inexpensive if not free, and a human right eventually. The robots will take care of providing services and resources by commanding the "blue collar" jobs; while we can finally step back, take a look at what we've done, interpret it, and create the world that we want and are able to do. :)

          Oh, and the water wheel was exactly like a robot in the way you put it. Didn't have to pay wages for people to hand mill grains, just had to buy the wheel. Truly a different scale, but the wheel enabled the market to free people from working the mill into a different trade, just as robots will enable us to make a market out of our minds and creation. :D doesn't that just sound fun? maybe its just me, but I'm elated by such a chance.

  2. All you need to do is read Issac Azimov's robot stories to find out what will happen and how society will react. We need to implement Asimov's three laws of robotics quite quickly!

    • He does seem to cover a lot of issues in several of his series (R. Daneel, I, Robot, Robot Dreams) but I think the more he uncovered the more it is apparent that the consequences of robotic integration can be far reaching and completely unintended. The blanket application of this laws was something that his stories even deglamorized (e.g. the Zeroeth Law of robotics) His laws are, and will ever be a great framework to build on, but they are merely the frame work.

  3. My biggest issue is the loss of jobs that humans can easily do and get paid for. This is worse than outsourcing to other countries. I love the idea of robots…somewhat. The ever present them of robot apocalypse looms in the back of my brain. I am sure there will be many robot related accidents in the beginning and feel that robot babysitters should be held off on until the robots 'learn'(are programmed) to not accidently crush, hurt or neglect the babies or children.

  4. I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.
    Time to die.

  5. There is one simple solution to quell the robot rebellions: treat them like the sentient beings they will be. We give a being sentience, conscience, and self-awareness and then subject them to the horrors of slavery. Eventually the beings rebel against their oppressors and easily destroy our fleshy bodies with their metal ones.
    Before any semi sentient being is placed in a working position, we need to make sure the laws regarding freedom and liberty are extended to include the mechanical man.

    I understand this statement will probably be taken in a bad way, but the robots taking the menial labor jobs in the world will, in my opinion, force the human race to become more than they already are. I highly doubt that robot doctors will be coming any time soon, as doctors require a humanity that is not found in robots at this point. The same can probably be said for police officers, lawyers, educators, etc. The jobs most likely to be taken by robots will be menial labor jobs, or jobs that require a high level of repetition.

    • you're solution to quell the impending robotic rebellion is one hundred percent accurate.

      however, what do you see in this world that I do not? we still struggle every day with equality for humankind. robotikind will be a low priority, if it even raises the needle at all. unfortunately, I do not see that changing any time in the next decade, or even two.

  6. I think our best minds in creative writing have already shown us the possibilities of creating life, even if it is non-biological: wars, decimation of civilization, extinction.
    It might be easy to write all this off as ‘fiction’ and move forward making robotic solutions to overall human laziness or natural, biological incapability, but I think we need to ask ourselves if we’re prepared for the consequences of handing little Sally or Timmy off to robo-babysitter, or letting the artificial intelligence loose onto automated assembly plants, or creating artificial beings that mimic us in every way (for what? Espionage? Companionship for those unable or unwillingly to function socially?).
    It seems to me that we’re playing God for the sake of playing God – creating these cold, metal replicas of ourselves just for the self-indulgent, self-aggrandizing purpose of simply being able to say, “look at us! Look at what we’ve done!”
    We have all these genius minds looking for a way to replace the human, when instead they could be helping devise ways to better the human.
    I would gladly live in a ‘technological backwater’ (as one poster wrote) if it meant curing cancer, or AIDS, or Alzheimer’s.
    Robots should remain the stuff of theory and fiction.

    • There are plenty of creative minds in writing that have not taken the views you have. In fact, I would argue that most sci-fi writers would disagree with your statements.

      I think it is you saying that "creating cold metal replicas" of ourselves is just for the purpose of saying "look at us! Look at what we've done!". By viewing it this way, to yourself, you are imprinting that idea onto the movement of technology as it emerges. The people that work in this field do not see it in this way, nor will there opinions change. So in essence, you are only convincing yourself, and maybe slightly influence a few on the way, but that is unlikely. If we are created in the image of a god, then that must mean we were made to create; for what are we and this universe but a creation? You are underselling our only clear purpose- though not the sole purpose- necessary to beget the ultimate answers. We can not just "play god" for the sake of playing "god", for our utter existence is "god". When you slay the idea of creation, you are slandering yourself. It is true, we may not survive what we create in the type of existence we are used to. Where is god to our society anymore, is it still alive in us all, did god survive our creation, or did its form change after the universe came into existence? Does that mean we do not try to create everything we can imagine, on the level we are capable of, just because we may not live to see or know its existence afterword? What if we ultimate absorb ourselves into our creation, or absorb it into ourselves? Are we then our own creation, by will of our existence under a universal god? It may sound insane, it may be, but what ever may come of it, we will have created it. Why not have a little fun?

      Plus, one needs to take in account emerging technologies that come along side working with robots. We will actually make humanity better because we will eventually be able to interface ourselves through bio-technology and bio-robotics, even nano-robotics. These are the things that will not only beat cancer, AIDS, and alzheimers, but all disease and physical malady. We can not fathom how a discovery in one field of technology will help advance another. If you try to stem off a faction of research, it is like cutting off a limb to an overall body, or removing an organ. So, it is your ideas that are poisonous to create a better world where humans may coexist- not replaced- with many different creations,

      • cutting through some of your humanist jargon was frustrating, but I think I got to the core of what you were saying:

        that we create because we are driven to create, and our creations are part of us as we are part of them, &tc.

        I hope that's the gist, because I would feel bad if it wasn't and then I said the next few sentences.

        I disagree. Yes, I think that we have a spark that drives us to create, but I also believe that we should learn our own boundaries and parameters. If we destroy ourselves as a species, then who will be left to create? Tired old minds which have been digitally or biologically uploaded into a future technology, but which stagnate because there are no new challenges. Part of the challenge of life is our innate knowledge that one day, we're going to die, and we want to do as much as we can before that happens.

        I think that, without the challenge of living, the human race will just… bore itself to death. In a very literal sense. And I realize that this is just me, and I respect your opinion–you certainly have more hope for humanity than I do–but I hope that others can also respect mine.

        I don't want to stagnate. I want to live, and burn myself out doing all the tasks that make me human: cleaning up after myself, and asking for directions, and discovering new things totally on accident, and learning to cook interesting new foods, and learning through traditional social interactions and mediums, and writing about my experiences, not because I expect someone to read it on a social networking site, but to leave a physical record that I existed… that I LIVED.

        But that's just me.

  7. Japan is already designing soldier robots that run can climb, shoot and self repair.So who has the most money and technology wins the day? We are already killing people by remote control.Do you really think the team that has the major break threw in AI is going to announce it?They are already killing animals trying to create the cyborg interface.Yes to do mundane or dangerous jobs great. As a globe its been almost sheer luck that we haven't blown ourselves up from nuclear weapons. I think good new technology is great but it seems we have little or no ability to control curb or stop the bad technology until the damage is done.So Data with no commander ranking ok but Hall 2000 no.By the time they get here Im not sure sure your going to know the good from the bad.

  8. I disagree. Yes, I think that we have a spark that drives us to create, but I also believe that we should learn our own boundaries and parameters. If we destroy ourselves as a species, then who will be left to create? Tired old minds which have been digitally or biologically uploaded into a future technology, but which stagnate because there are no new challenges. Part of the challenge of life is our innate knowledge that one day, we're going to die, and we want to do as much as we can before that happens.
    credit card processing

  9. I think that, without the challenge of living, the human race will just… bore itself to death. In a very literal sense. And I realize that this is just me, and I respect your opinion–you certainly have more hope for humanity than I do–but I hope that others can also respect mine.
    smslån med betalningsanmärkning