I love robots. I’m talking as a certified geek who grew up watching Japanese super robot cartoons. (We didn’t call them anime back then.) Voltes V is my favorite, followed closely by Mazinger Z.
While giant robots might take a while longer to become a reality, robots are becoming more mainstream. The robot revolution is happening, and, no, we’re not talking about Skynet.
Robots with a human touch
This Wired article predicts that robots will become even more humanlike.
"They will develop the ability to converse, entertain, and even provide companionship to their owners, engaging in natural conversation and becoming an integral piece of the home.
"Humans already tend to engage with technology as though it were a fellow person. We assign names to robots; we talk at gadgets and apps when we're well aware they won't respond. Even when the technology isn't designed to play a human role, the integration of its capability into our lives causes us to treat it like another being. The barrier to normalized, ongoing interaction between people and machines has always been a function of the machine’s ability to engage us realistically. But that barrier is slowly but surely being broken down."
As robots become increasingly integrated into human society, however, we must guard against the temptation to treat robots as high-tech servants.
I guess it isn’t surprising, as people might think of robots as appliances, computers, toys, or gadgets. In fact, "robot" was originally derived from the Czech word "robota"—the forced labor of serfs. Karel Capcek introduced the word in his 1920 science fiction play R.U.R., though when the word became popular he explained that it was his brother Josef who coined it.
Rise of digisexuals
Yet as they grow more intelligent, autonomous, and human-like, shouldn’t we start seeing robots as equals? What rights should robots enjoy? And how are we to protect these rights, when it’s already hard to protect human rights?
Moreover, as robots grow more advanced, will love between humans and robots one day become accepted by society? In fact, as this New York Times article shows us, some people are already identifying as digisexuals.
"Self-identification is not the same as identity, and some classes of description now may be closer to metaphor. But the idea that flesh-and-blood humans may actually forge fulfilling emotional, or even sexual, relationships with digital devices is no longer confined to dystopian science fiction movies like 'Ex Machina' and 'Her,' stories in which lonely techies fall too hard for software-driven femme fatales.
"In real life, pioneers of human-android romance now have a name, 'digisexuals,' which some academics and futurists have suggested constitutes an emergent sexual identity."
Human, all too human
As we confront the reality of robots becoming part of our everyday lives, it might be good to reexamine our views on robots—and our ideas of humanity.
For instance, the Japanese don’t seem to have the same Western fear of robots. According to the writer, this might be due to a difference in the concept of "humanity":
"The Western concept of 'humanity' is limited, and I think it’s time to seriously question whether we have the right to exploit the environment, animals, tools, or robots simply because we’re human and they are not.
"Sometime in the late 1980s, I participated in a meeting organized by the Honda Foundation in which a Japanese professor—I can’t remember his name—made the case that the Japanese had more success integrating robots into society because of their country’s indigenous Shinto religion, which remains the official national religion of Japan.
"Followers of Shinto, unlike Judeo-Christian monotheists and the Greeks before them, do not believe that humans are particularly 'special.' Instead, there are spirits in everything, rather like the Force in Star Wars. Nature doesn’t belong to us, we belong to Nature, and spirits live in everything, including rocks, tools, homes, and even empty spaces."
It might be true that cultural differences between East and West might influence our views on robots. Robot ethicist Kate Darling, however, noted that humans are generally hardwired to have an emotional connection with robots.
How we treat robots may actually show what kind of person we are. Will fear or jealousy prevent us from ever considering robots as equals? No matter how advanced and indistinguishable from humans they may become?
Perhaps in embracing robots, whether literally or figuratively, we will end up becoming more human.