Will Humans and Robots Ever Coexist?

For any of you who have read my author’s notes, you know the pages in the back of my books might as well be called “Scary Shit From the Future Happening NOW!”

It’s no secret that I am pro-human, but that doesn’t mean I eschew all technology (at least not yet). I am an author who makes her living exclusively online. I rely on digital platforms like Amazon and Patreon to get my books to readers like you, and even my print books are sold through digital marketplaces. The downside of running an online business is that I cannot envision ever being completely independent of some of the same technology I warn about in my books.

Artificial intelligence plays a major role in visibility on Amazon, Google, and social networks. In recent years, many people have seen their businesses hit hard by algorithmic changes on all of these platforms, which is just one example of the power this technology wields.

The digital world is already dominated by AI. An algorithm controls which Facebook posts appear in your feed, it controls which brands pop up when you shop online, and it controls the search results you see when you look something up on Google. AI is even responsible for the route you take when you use the Maps app on your smartphone.

Slowly but surely, artificial intelligence and robotics are beginning to creep into the physical world, from cashier-less stores like Amazon Go to smart thermostats that “learn” your family’s behavior and adjust the temperature accordingly.

Several companies are working on self-driving cars designed to make autonomous decisions and learn as they go. Others have developed robots that patrol parking lots in an effort to reduce crime. Robots have made their way into hospitals and onto the battlefield for bomb disposal, and companies find new applications for robots all the time.

As the technology improves, we’re going to see AI incorporated more and more into our daily lives. Machine learning and robotics are likely to take the same route to adoption as the smartphone, which was one of the most quickly adopted pieces of technology in human history.

The smartphone reached 10 percent market penetration in two and a half years. (To compare, it took 25 years for the telephone to reach 10 percent of the population and 30 years for electricity to do the same.)

Comfort level is everything when it comes to adopting new gadgets. In general, people prefer technology that is just a more advanced version of something they already use (such as mail that is delivered instantaneously, a phone that goes anywhere, or a map that tells them the best route to take).

On an episode of the podcast Hidden Brain, author and marketing professor Jonah Berger talks to Shankar Vedantam about the power of influence. He talks about how, in the late 1800s, people were frightened of automobiles. People had never seen a horseless buggy before the first cars hit the market, and they thought these machines were the devil’s work.

To put people’s fears at ease, a man named Uriah Smith invented Horsey Horseless — a fake horse head that could be strapped to the front of a vehicle. The familiar sight of a horse “pulling” the vehicle put people’s minds at ease, and Horsey Horseless helped them become more comfortable with the idea of a horseless carriage.

This concept was driven home for me when I heard about a study out of the Georgia Institute of Technology. Researchers wanted to know what type of face people preferred to see in a robot. The choice was a purely robotic face, a human face, or a human/robot mashup. The study found that while young people preferred a robot with a face that looked like a robot, older people preferred robots that looked like humans. (Very few preferred the human/robot mashup.)

This makes perfect sense when you consider people’s comfort level with technology. Young people today have grown up with the impression that The Jetsons is just on the horizon. They are tech natives and are intimately familiar with AI technology, even if they don’t realize it.

Older people, on the other hand, have spent proportionally more of their lives without the Internet, smartphones, and artificial intelligence. They still prefer robots that look like humans because they prefer actual humans.

But will the majority of the population readily accept the presence of robots in everyday life?

My first instinct is to say no. My husband is outspokenly anti-robot. (We once walked out of a McDonald’s when the workers refused to take our order and directed us to a self-serve kiosk.) He believes self-driving cars are a scourge on humanity, and I am inclined to agree.

While I’m a tech native who uses a variety of digital tools and services to operate every aspect of my business, I find myself stepping away from technology in my personal life. I don’t have a smart home assistant. I’ve begun leaving my smartphone at home. I started reading exclusively paper books again, and I bought an old film camera. To me there’s something refreshing about stepping away from the screen, and analog tools have a romanticism that is sorely lacking in digital.

But then I look at the statistics. According to recent research, 20 percent of U.S. adults have access to a smart home speaker like Amazon Echo or Google Home. The Echo was released in November 2014, and already we’re at 20 percent market penetration. That’s insane.

When you look at the demographics of smart-speaker owners, the drop-off in adoption by age isn’t as drastic as you might expect. Just a quarter of Amazon Echo uses are under the age of 30. A whopping 22 percent are 55 or older, and 12 percent are 65 and older.

But just because these new smart technologies are being readily adopted doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. Many people have already expressed concerns that the use of virtual assistants like Siri are making kids rude and giving them an outlet to practice bullying. (Virtual assistants don’t require a please and thank-you, and they don’t reprimand children for saying mean things.)

Unsurprisingly, robot abuse is already a problem. Children have been observed punching and kicking robots in malls, and the hitchhiking robot that made it across Canada in four weeks didn’t last two in the U.S. It was found in an alleyway in Philadelphia, headless, with its arms torn off.

Still, there are plenty of reported instances of people developing strong emotional bonds with robots. U.S. military personnel who work with robots for bomb disposal have been known to give their robots names and report feeling a sense of loss when a robot they’ve worked with gets blown up.

Many people who bought Sony’s robot dog AIBO from 1999 to 2006 became so attached to their robots that they began treating them as members of the family. When Sony announced that it would no longer be providing support for these aging robo-pets, many owners mourned their AIBOs’ decline and eventual demise. Some owners complained of their robo-dogs’ “aching joints,” and some started meeting regularly to let their ailing dogs play together.

Nobuyuki Norimatsu, a former Sony employee, started a cyberhospital to care for AIBO dogs in need of repair. Unfortunately, the parts to help the robot patients had to come from other robo-dogs that were too far gone.

To honor the “organ donor” AIBOs and their families, Norimatsu wanted to hold funerals for the decommissioned AIBOs. This led to him approaching the head priest of a Buddhist temple, who agreed to hold funerals for the robotic dogs.

While this may sound extreme, it isn’t unusual for people to form bonds with non-human beings that they care for. Study after study has demonstrated people’s reluctance to harm a robot that they have been given ownership over, and many have even suggested that robots can be used as companions for the elderly and as therapy animals.

If we’re going to coexist with robots, there has to be a new social contract for the way we interact with them. Will robots be treated as inanimate objects or as people? Should owners be allowed to treat their robots however they like, or should robots be given their own set of rights? What will these rights look like, and what will the punishment be for violating those rights?

Many people have likened robot rights to animal rights, but this raises tricky existential questions about a robot’s ability to feel pain, to have emotions, or the value of a being’s existence being determined by its level of intelligence. If robots have capabilities that match or surpass a human’s, should they have a right not to be turned off?

These are all questions that we should be asking, but few people are. We have grown accustomed to adopting new technology unquestioningly. It’s only when it becomes problematic that we take a step back and ask how we should be incorporating it into our lives.

But robots are no longer the future. Robots are here. Soon we won’t be able to choose whether or not we interact with them. We will only be able to choose how we interact with them.