Posted by: owizblog | October 9, 2015

Cute Robots, Not-cute People: Thought For The Day, BBC Radio Scotland, 9 October 2015

I’ve got a new phone. It’s a lurid orange colour so that I don’t lose it in the creative chaos of the study. And it talks to me, simperingly, rather ingratiatingly.

Soon, I might have a phone that looks like a human being, and behaves like a robot. The “Robohon” was announced yesterday, an eight inch tall phone, that “can take calls, dance, respond to its owner’s voice and beam videos out of its face.” Robots are appearing everywhere, with a lot of effort put into making them look like people.

Phones “made in our image,” eh? We seem to be happier if machines we can interact with look human. But why? There’s been a lot of work on this. An MIT scientist called Kate Darling is studying our responses to human-like robots – and she’s found that people in tests find it quite difficult to hit or “hurt”  robots, to do things to machines that look like people, that would cause pain to actual people.

My mind went to all those other, deeply unsettling, experiments in which psychologists have demonstrated how easy it is to undo the inhibitions we have against hurting actual people, how easily people can be made to inflict what they think is real pain on other human beings of flesh and blood. Why do we treat machines that look like people with a consideration, a humanity, that’s denied in practice to so many real, actual people?

Worryingly, one of the words that keeps cropping up in this discussion is “cute.” “Anthropomorphic” robots that look appealing, and, crucially, respond to our behaviour and emotions, evoke these responses in us, it seems.  And of course people often don’t look appealing, and don’t respond to us in ways we find gratifying, or “cute.” They don’t bend to our will, or reinforce us. They can be challenging, scary, needy, different…

It’s easy to like what’s just like me; made in my own image. It’s in the difficult, different, demanding other that my faith challenges me to find the image of God, to love those who aren’t like me, to find in them not a means to my ends, but a neighbour, sister, brother…

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