Do we want to create true human robots?

Recently, I went to a lecture organised by the University of Sydney titled ‘Why should the perfect robot look and think just like a human?’ I was intrigued and perhaps even a bit dismayed about this title as I strongly believe that this is not the best direction for robotics. Furthermore, such a new human species will most likely never be developed, certainly not within the next few generations. Beyond that, humanity might perhaps arrive at a stage that we have gathered sufficient intellect and wisdom to develop robots within the restrictions of what we as a society see fit.

The key proponent of the topic of the human robot was Professor Minoru Asada from Osaka University. As I did find out listening to him, the topic was not selected as a catchy headline, but he and his team are actively working on a true human robot. This is what he and his team are working on.

“…the emergent robotics that seeks for the design principle of robot behaviours through the interaction between the robot and its environment. They take the cognitive developmental robotics approach through which they try to understand the development of increasingly complex cognitive processes in natural and artificial systems and how such processes emerge through physical/social interaction.”

They have been working on this since 1992 and the Professor mentioned that he was not certain if they indeed will be able to develop the “human robot”.

It was extremely interesting to get an insight into the research that he and his team have been doing, such as analysing cognitive behaviour in great detail as well as, for example, the development of a very realistic face of a child.

I am sure that the side effects of this study are of enormous value, but I remain very sceptical if this will ever result in a true human robot.

The other speaker at this event was Dr. Raya Jones from the School of Social Sciences at Cardiff University. Her current project investigates social representations of robot companions, especially robots for children. Her view on robots was perhaps somewhat less ambitious. Looking at robots that can be used for interaction with people, especially children.

One of my intellectual hobbies is philosophy and in getting more and more insights in the complexity of human beings and the individuality of every single individual person in relation to their thoughts, experiences, interpretation of the world around them and so on. Not to mention the complexity of our brain — it has become clear the more we start to understand the brain the more complex it proves to be. Trying to replicate or “grow” humans through self-learning processes is, in my humble opinion, not something we will achieve any time soon.

Perhaps, more importantly, do we really want to invent true human robots? I am certainly not a supporter of that. There are so many aspects of robotics that we can develop that would be more useful for us and this does include robots that can interact with people. There are good applications here for autistic children, people with dementia and so on and indeed some good progress with great results are made here. Most certainly, let’s improve on this, but these robots remain tools for very specific purposes.

The less science fiction elements of robotics have very little to do with the creation of true human robots. We have seen robotics being included in manufacturing since the 1980s and it is amazing what has been achieved here. The latest aspect of robotics is its “brain” AI (artificial intelligence). This brings robotic development into a whole range of different areas such as healthcare, administration, military, legal affairs and education.

A key development in all of this that we so far have failed to address correctly is the inequality that flows from these developments. The main financial benefits of these increases of productivity have gone to a relatively small group of people such as investors, bankers and senior managers at large corporations.

The people that have been replaced by these technological developments have fared much worse. While they might have found other jobs, these have often been more of a casual nature with less security attached to it. This has led to limited wage growth, especially in comparison to the spiralling incomes at the top of society. Therefore, stress levels have increased among a large proportion of the population. This, in turn, has become an important component of the disenfranchisement of large groups of the population and the current political and social upheaval around the globe.

It is within this context that I referred above to the fact that we as a society need to gather more “intellect” and “wisdom” in order to properly address all of the new technological developments that are ahead of us. This needs to be looked at and addressed not just within an economic setting but rather more so in the total context of our society.

As in the digital economy, also in the sector of robotics and AI the market is in the hand of a few very large companies, often heavily subsidised by governments. But a purely market-driven approach to AI and robotics will simply be aimed at maximising profits. It is about time that we as a society set goals of what we would like to be the outcomes of these new developments and make sure that they are used to maximise social outcomes as well. Especially as many of these developments originate in our taxpayer-funded universities and are supported by large Government investments in this sector.

China is rapidly becoming the world leader in these developments because they have a very political strategy attached to their developments and investments. The companies involved are guided by clear goals set by the Government. The West is currently recognising that losing control of the telecoms manufacturing sector has national consequences. Not having an AI strategy in place that values political, social as well as economic outcomes will most certainly come back to bite them again as it did in telecoms.

If it comes down to pure neoliberal market forces, China will outcompete us easily in most of the technology areas. Unless we add political and social values to economic values (financial profits), we will simply depend on AI and robotics technologies developed by the Chinese. Boycotting China will not address the issue that we will need to build up our own strategic industries. Unless we take a broader view that goes beyond just profits, we will very rapidly fall behind.

Paul Budde

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