“The robots are coming!”
This phrase has been used in countless books, articles and news programs over the past several years to describe the march of our mechanical counterparts toward their enshrinement as an indispensable part of our daily lives – and for good reason.
Of course, the robots actually came a long time ago. As a matter of fact, the word “robot” was first used in writer Karel Capek’s 1920 science fiction play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). In contrast to modern machines that are built to carry out a series of specific commands and actions, Capek’s robots were more like artificial humans that were made in a factory from a synthetic organic material.
Today, the majority of our robots look nothing like humans. Think about it: toll booths on our highways are robots; the self-checkout kiosks at our stores are robots; and even the Coca-Cola Freestyle machine that allows us to mix our favorite combination of soft drink flavors is a type of robot. Robots are already all around us, and help us to navigate daily tasks that we now take for granted.
However, these aren’t the type of robots that captivate our imagination, leading some of us to dream about a fantastic future of technological wizardry and prosperity, while others live in dread of a dystopic nightmare dominated by our mechanical overlords. Due to Capek’s original definition of “robot” and the countless portrayals that followed in film and media, we expect our robots to be less like commonplace machines and more like, well… us.
Whether our robots largely continue to manifest as commonplace devices and appliances that blend into our everyday routines, or become so life-like that no one can tell the difference between humans and humanoids, there is little doubt that robots are poised to radically change the way we learn, work, create, and relate to one another and even perceive what it means to be human.
And these widespread changes to our personal activities and shared reality are much more than surface-level changes to our lives. When we change the fabric of how we function as a society, we also change the way we think, both individually and collectively. Does the inevitable “rise of the robots” – particularly the social or relationship-oriented variety that have permeated our global zeitgeist through popular sci-fi movies such as The Day The Earth Stood Still, Star Wars and the more recent Ex Machina – also have the power to aid in the cognitive evolution of the human race? If so, what type of change will the age of social robotics bring to the way we think and perceive the world around us?
Though luminaries such as Bill Gates, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have all warned of the various dangers posed by the rise of our robotic companions, many others are studying and researching the ways in which social robotics can positively redefine the human experience. One such generative voice is the robotic pioneer Cynthia Breazeal, the Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the Personal Robots Group at the MIT Media Laboratory. As an expert on social robotics, Breazeal has launched several initiatives around connecting humans and robots, and her company is hoping to release their home-based social robot named Jibo in the very near future. “I’m hoping not for a denigration of the human experience but almost a re-enlightenment and a re-appreciation of what it means to be human,” she says. “How can we create technology to support who we are?”1
RO-MAN, the IEEE International Symposium on Robot and Human Interactive Communication, has been echoing similar ideas, hoping to take the next leap in robot and human relationships across the domains of education, health care and collaboration. As Dr. Sandra Y. Okita, an associate professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and conference chair noted,
“This is a threshold year for HRI [human-robot interaction]… It’s no longer the preserve of the computer science or engineering field, but has expanded to encompass art, neuroscience, philosophy, and social sciences… One clear opportunity that we’ve been examining here at the conference, is how robots can make human-to-human interaction smarter. We’re now at the stage of HRI where it’s no longer about what robots are, or what they can do—but what role can they play in our lives going forwards.”2
What role, indeed? Beyond the popular conversations that envision robots as our teachers, caregivers and even sexual partners3, they are now being leveraged to socially engineer dormant emotions and values in their carbon-based progenitors. In Japan, where birth rates are declining so rapidly that the country’s population will be cut in half by 2082, Toyota’s non-automotive department has created a robot baby called Kirobo Mini in an attempt to engender parenthood and a desire for children, and thereby foster population growth. “‘He wobbles a bit, and this is meant to emulate a seated baby which hasn’t fully developed the skills to balance itself,’ said Fuminori Kataoka, Kirobo Mini’s chief design engineer. ‘This vulnerability is meant to invoke an emotional connection.’”4
Exploring and engineering the social relationship between robots and humans is the focus of a growing number of organizations, such as the work being done by The Social Robotics Lab at Yale University. This leading research institution is committed to “building embodied computational models of human social behavior” through the use of socially interactive robots. Along with other educational and organizational researchers, they are finding that increased connection to social robots enhances the human tendency and capacity toward creative collaboration. As SRL researcher Sarah Strohkorb stated in a recent study on the promotion of social collaboration using social robots, “(Collaboration) has been suggested as a strategy for solving large-scale social and environmental problems. Effective collaboration also enhances creativity, improves problem-solving ability, and increases learning gains… In order to promote the growth and use of teamwork skills in children, we propose using a social robot that serves as both as a peer in the interaction and a promoter of collaborative skill use.”5
Of course, supporters and critics of a robotic revolution will point out that the next logical step is to completely normalize these types of robot-human relationships so that something even more profound can take place than producing certain human emotional responses in education, mental health or social architecture. Both camps would probably agree that such a normalization would have something to do with granting robots a level of legal status and a set of “rights.” Far fetched?
As of January 2017, the European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a draft calling for a set of regulations that would grant “electronic personhood” for the most capable robots and artificial intelligence. As Luxembourgish MEP Mady Delvaux noted after the draft was completed, “A growing number of areas of our daily lives are increasingly affected by robotics… In order to address this reality and to ensure that robots are and will remain in the service of humans, we urgently need to create a robust European legal framework… What we need now is to create a legal framework for the robots that are currently on the market or will become available over the next 10 to 15 years.”6
And what happens once our socialized robots gain personhood (as the robot Sophia did in October 2017 in Saudi Arabia)?7 This is the topic being tackled by Dr. Joanne Pransky, the world’s first robo-psychologist. “Human beings will need to learn to live with robots, but more importantly, robots will have to acclimate to living with us,” notes Pransky. “Once society has accepted that in our foreseeable lifetime, the world will be as dependent upon robotic technologies as it is on computers today, the complex and controversial topics of robotic psychiatry such as robot law, robot ethics, and where to take our robot when it suffers from sibling rivalry, will be more compelling.”
Once we have fully integrated robots into our everyday lives and elevated them to the status of “mechanical species,” it follows that robots could then naturally fill all of the roles in society that constitute the modern definition of a “job.” In turn, this would free humans to live with greater passion-oriented purpose, and help us to enhance the mental skills – both individually and collectively – needed to be exponentially more creative, anticipatory and transformational. In an article entitled Don’t Want a Robot To Steal Your Job? Be Creative, tech writer Alice Bonasio highlighted a shocking ramification of the robot revolution: Our present emphasis on STEM-based learning (science, technology, engineering and math) is only preparing the upcoming generation for the exact type of activity that our growing array of social robots perform to perfection!
“What society therefore urgently needs is an entirely new value system for both education and work; one centered around the singular thing robots can’t quite catch up with us on: creativity… Fostering those creative-thinking principles will prove essential if we’re to outsmart the oncoming automation wave… Curiosity is a cornerstone of creative thinking, and we need to actively harness it in order to tackle the challenges of this brave new world… Creativity […] works much like a bulletproof vest for businesses, allowing them to adapt to fast-changing environments that might destroy those that are slow to evolve… Companies content to focus on incremental changes will almost inevitably become casualties of technological disruption.”8
In addition to Bonasio’s risk-laden approach to successful human-robot interaction, a new opportunity is arising as well: The ability to leverage the technologically- and socially-advanced prowess of our mechanical and synthetic co-evolutionaries as a means to escaping the short-term thinking and tasks that have kept us from overcoming grand challenges, accelerating human development and cognitively inhabiting the spaces far beyond the here-and-now. If this vision becomes a reality, then our images of an army of amoral robotic overlords will instead become a part of the narrative of how we redefined humanity for an age of increasing complexity.
Frank Spencer is the Founding Principal and Creative Director of The Futures School. He holds a Master of Arts in Strategic Foresight from Regent University. He has worked on Strategic Foresight projects for companies such as Kraft, Mars, Marriott and The Walt Disney Company. Read more.