Making Robots Human: Are We Ready?

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.