Professor Tony Prescott shares his thoughts on the progress of robots to date. Many Japanese robot builders have been drawn to the humanoid model with Honda’s Asimo often specifically demonstrated in the ‘robot butler’ role. Asimo is not available in the shops, but Pepper, the humanoid robot developed by Softbank, has been sold to many Japanese homes as having the emotional intelligence and faithfulness of a companion (outside Japan it is being promoted to a more corporate market and at a higher price). Less than the height of most people, with a head like a rugby ball, wheeled-base, and a constant look of mild surprise, Pepper is less humanoid than C-3PO but still clearly takes the human form as it model (the gesticulating hands are a give-away).
Nevertheless, humanoid robots like Pepper have a problem. It is easier to make robots that look and move like a human than it is to build human-like social intelligence. For this reason, humanoid robots can be disappointingly short of conversational flair. If Pepper is a trusted friend ‘he’ is not one who is going to surprise you with amusing banter except where it has been cleverly pre-programmed with one-liners by some human wit. Of course, there is all the vastness of the internet for Pepper, and other humanoids, to trawl for answers to questions, but the ability to construct a conversation on the fly, that is well-matched to the situation and to who the robot is talking to, is one of the biggest unmet challenges in Artificial Intelligence (AI). Our human sensitivities are also acutely tuned to anything about a social ‘other’ that seems a bit unusual; for humanoid robots it is easy to stray into this ‘uncanny valley’, leaving us with a real sense of disquiet.
The Question of Gender
Should a robot be a ‘he’, ‘she’ or ‘it’? Of course (most) robots don’t have sexual parts, and they certainly don’t have DNA, so gender is defined by appearance, behaviour, and ultimately, how the robot is perceived. This creates a further difficulty. If a robot is tall and strong people might think it masculine; short and meek, they might think feminine, but this is awkward. The makers of Pepper describe it as a ‘he’ perhaps to avoid this kind of gender stereotyping. But should Pepper be gendered at all?
The robot ethicist Alan Winfield has argued that robots should not be gendered because of the subliminal effects this might have on how we think about other people, but how to enforce that? Even if designers studiously work towards an androgenous look—size, pitch of voice, movement, and ways of talking all include unavoidable gender cues. Humanoid robots also risk reinforcing other implicit biases. Lucia Jacobs, a keynote speaker at the 2017 Human Robot Interaction Conference, criticised the ubiquitous use of white or cream plastic in designs for prototype companion robots as reflecting an implicit ethnic bias—#RobotsSoWhite.
Robots as Pets
So what about non-humanoid robot companions? Roboticists in Japan, ahead of the game again, created Aibo, Sony’s robot ‘dog’, back in the 1990s. Despite selling over 150,000 robots, production of the Aibo halted in 2006 much to the dismay of its customers some of whom cherish their robot pets to this day. Arguably, Aibo was ahead of its time. In the last few years, the idea of a small and distinctly non-humanoid household robot is starting to see a revival. Hasbro’s Furbies and FurReal Friends, and Wowee’s Chip, are robotic toys that seek to tap in to our fondness for non-human friendship. Could this kind of robot companion even fulfil a social need?
There is some evidence that people with an animal pet enjoy longer life, through reduced risk of heart disease, and report fewer feelings of loneliness. Maybe some of these benefits could transfer to a robot pet that doesn’t need to be walked or fed (except on electrons) and won’t be outlawed by your lease? On the technology side, while we cannot match human social intelligence (yet), building an animal-like social capability seems more achievable. My own research into biomimetic robots has led us to create MiRo—a small pet-like robot with engaging animal-like behaviour and appearance. The current prototype is designed for research and education but the long-term market for robots like MiRo may be as home companions for people who feel their lives would be enriched by a pet—biological or artificial.
Meanwhile, Star Wars robots are also making a comeback, C-3PO and R2-D2 both featured in the last Stars Wars episode (looking appropriately older), and there is a new kid on the block called BB-8, who I hope will have a starring role in the next one (scheduled for this December). I love that BB-8 is a big ball that rolls in any direction, its head balancing magically on top of its body as it spins and bounces along (it’s not just cinema magic though—the company Spyro has built miniature BB-8s that actually do this). BB-8, like R2-D2, celebrates the machine nature of robots. They are both clearly robots but they also have life-like qualities that we all recognise. The ‘liminality’ of these creations—that they seem to straddle, or fall between, the categories of machines and animals is fascinating. Indeed, in the future we may come to think of real instances of this kind of robot as belonging to a new class of artificial ‘life form’.
For the moment, we will continue to be entertained by fictional robots, but beyond that, I believe we may find that actual robots, that are designed to complement rather than replace human friends, can enrich our lives, and may meet some of our emotional needs by providing new and different forms of non-human companionship.
This is a modified blog post from the AHRC website.