A female student controls the work of an intelligent humanoid robot

My friend robot

The world of automation is making giant steps with increasingly intelligent devices that are radically transforming our way of life.

by Andrea Daniele Signorelli
01 December 2020
6 min read
by Andrea Daniele Signorelli
01 December 2020
6 min read

If you see a film in which robots are mistreated and you find yourselves sympathising with them, you’re not alone. It’s a feeling that shouldn’t logically make sense, but it’s widespread. One study, done in Germany, shows that our brains react negatively when we see a robot hit or broken by a human being. There are plenty of other examples of how people are naturally inclined to care for robots. This can happen even with robots that look nothing like humans or animals and don’t even communicate, having been designed for other purposes entirely. Take the famous robot hoover that won the hearts of the writer Patricia Marx and millions of other men and women.

Suffice to say, according to the contraption’s inventor Colin Angle, about 80% of people who own this cleaning robot have given it a name. And many of them are alarmed when the hoover sends them a notification on their smart phone, telling them it’s got stuck somewhere. But why do people name their robot hoovers and never other things they use all the time, like their smart phones, computers and microwaves?

Before answering that, it should be stressed that this phenomenon is by no means limited to houses. Even a few soldiers have gone a bit soft over military robots. In 2007, for instance, a colonel stopped an exercise in which the classic military robot TALON was being very badly damaged, saying it was “cruel”. A similar robot was given a medal and a 21-gun salute in farewell at a sort of military funeral in its honour.

A new interaction

But why does this happen? The reason is simpler than you might think. To us humans, everything that moves upon the earth naturally reminds us of a living thing. Throughout our evolutionary history until a few decades ago, that’s how things have been. And those feelings are brought to bear when robots react in various ways to the situations they are in. Now new robot friends are appearing on the market. They can greet us and have a party with us when we get home. They can talk to us. They can complain if we mistreat them. And they’re also learning to spot our emotions and adapt their behaviour to them. Add to this the fact that these robots can help us with household chores and even save our lives, as TALON does in the army, and you can see why someone might feel affection for them. Is it possible,

 then, that these machines are about to go beyond their status as tools and become members of society? In truth, this is all already happening in one corner of the world. As the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong reports, using robots as pets or friends is becoming the norm in Japan. There are many reasons for this. “Loneliness in Japan is a serious problem, even among the younger generations,” explains Shunsuke Aoki, founder of robot company Yukai Engineering. They also have an increasingly ageing population in which younger relatives often struggle to visit their elders. Which is why Japan is now home to an army of robots that look after lonely old people and keep them company.

Things have also a soul

But there are other reasons why the Japanese have embraced social robots. Part of it, inevitably, is popular culture. From Astro Boy (the ’50s cartoon about an android who feels emotions) to Mazinga, Gundam, Daitarn and finally Doraemon, the Japanese imagination has vibrated to robots for well over half a century. There’s also the country’s traditional concept of tsukumogami – the living spirit in inanimate objects. It exemplifies the culture of a place where the distinction between inanimate and animate objects is not as clear-cut as it is for us. “It's easier for us Japanese to accept that objects have their own intelligence and character,” adds Aoki. And that’s why the Land of the Rising Sun has even seen funerals for robots, like AIBO, the now famous brand of robot dogs.

A life-size statue of the famous robot Gundam in Daiba (teleport city of Tokyo)

The limits of robotics

So, have we set off down the path already? Will a combination of increasingly intelligent and lifelike robots, and us gradually getting used to their presence and their increasing utility, inevitably turn them into our future metal friends? The path is strewn with two obstacles. As robotics experts of Gael Bonnin and Kathleen Richardson’s calibre have explained, first and foremost the robots pose a high risk. Exploiting these “surrogates of living beings” to discharge our responsibilities of caring for old people, finding friends and partners, or even just taking care of a real dog rather than a robot one. “If you use a robot as a replacement for a human being, it won't solve your problems,” Bonnin argues. “It might even end up reinforcing your feeling of loneliness.” The second obstacle is the so-called “uncanny valley”. A theory from the 1970s runs that we can only feel close to robots once their resemblance to humans reaches a level that makes them very similar, but still not enough to confuse them with a human. When that happens, it creates that feeling of uneasiness that’s easily aroused by particularly advanced androids, like the famous Sophia from Hanson Robotics. So, robots will be carving out an ever greater role in our lives. But we need to take a few precautions. Robots should not be a substitute for human interaction. As Shunsuke Aoki says, “they should be different from human beings, especially if they are used in the domestic sphere.”

The author: Andrea Daniele Signorelli

Freelance journalist, writes about New Technologies, Politics and Society.