Yesterday, I wrote about the dark side of robotics, which stems largely from a wariness about ourselves. (Blog 8/31/15) Writer, John Mooallem raises our level of consciousness about “them” and “us” further in, “Is it ok to kick a robot?” (Wired, July 2015 pg. 52.)
Besides robotic virtues mentioned yesterday, Mooallem points out these wired creatures never smell bad, get hung over or suffer depression. “They just get the job done” (Ibid pg 52) And, if given a pleasant façade, we can even come to like a robot. To prove his point, the author refers to an MIT experiment where volunteers were given little robot dinosaurs, called Pleos, and materials to dress them up.
After interacting with their “pets,” for a time, the owners appeared to become attached to them and, at that point, the volunteers were sent out of the room for a coffee break. When they returned, their instructions were altered. The subjects were told their Pleos had behaved badly during their absence and had to be punished. Everyone looked shocked. One or two wagged a finger at the Pleos. When they did, the little dinosaurs, as programmed, whimpered and hung their heads in a gesture of shame. That appeared to satisfy their owners, but not the researchers. They insisted the Pleos had been so bad, they had to be killed. The first person to destroy the lot would keep his or her pet as a reward.
At first, the participants giggled, but when they understood the researchers were serious, their expressions became glum. Finally, one volunteer snapped off the head of the robot next to him. Instantly, the room fell silent. People stared as if they had witnessed a murder. Afterwards, one of the researchers admitted she was so moved by the chill in the air, she decided it would be unethical to perform the experiment using children. (Ibid pg. 52.)
What the research suggests is that humans can transfer sympathy to non-living entities. That raises several questions. Does our subconscious get muddled when we treat inanimate objects as sentient? If so, would it be good or bad to kick a robot? Would the attack release tension or lead to an escalation of violence towards others?
For good or ill, a new field in psycho therapy is bound to arise as we figure out our relationship with robots. Confucius warned us hundreds of years ago, though we haven’t listened: “Life Is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”
(Originally posted 9/1/15)