In the last fifty years, computer science and robotics have drastically improved and changed the daily lives of millions of people. Many of the things we see and use today will probably look as if it came straight out of a sci-fi movie for those who lived at the dawn of the technological age. But, as the technology continues to improve and enter into the realm of humanoids, scientist and activists are voicing their concern surrounding its ethical implications. Sure, it sounds cool to have a robot butler, but what effects does this have on empathy and does human rights apply to our wired friends?
These and a multitude of other questions are what Softbank (a Japanese technological company) is facing after their release of Pepper, the emotional humanoid robot. The purpose of Pepper is to be a companion robot for people, where the robot can sense the emotions of the human companion and react to it via conversations with the person. Pepper, as the company claims, does this in the "most natural and intuitive way, through his body movements and his voice". You can also personalize Pepper and the robot evolves with you by studying your emotions and personality so communication between you and the robot can be more natural. "He" (using the company specified pronoun) is the first robot to do so. Initially used in Softbank mobile stores as ushers and entertainers, Pepper is now available and being adopted into homes across Japan (started in June, 2015) and is scheduled to be released for sale this year (2016) in the United States. All of this sounds amazing and seems pretty cool at first. However, since the release into the public, certain incidents and scientific studies on how humanoid robots affect people's behaviors are making people wonder if this really is a good idea or not.
Kate Darling, one of MIT's human-robot interaction specialists (and the now rising field of "roboethics"), voiced her concern. Darling mentions how the humanoid look of Pepper is supposed to create a sense of empathy towards the robot as it looks human, and if people are kind to a robot, the chances of them being kind to other people too is increased. However, the opposite of this holds as well. If a person is violent towards a humanoid robot, while the robot does not really 'get hurt', the chances of the person being desensitized towards violence against actual humans may increase. Also, the lack of manners towards a humanoid robot could manifest itself towards other people as well. One case study is a drunken man Japan kicking and damaging a Pepper robot in a store. While the effects of robots on humans and a person's sense of empathy is one concern, the other is the issue of these robots being used as weapons.
Autonomous robots, which include humanoid robots, have already raised concern in their being used as weapons. Debates on what kinds of robots can be made and can be allowed into the public are being held from small scale governments all the way to the U.N. In many of the debates, the main question is "what kinds of robots could benefit society" and the pros and cons of robots being built for the masses.
There is also the more philosophically tied in ethical questions. Are these humanoid robots, who can perceive others and generate their own emotions, human in a way? Can society overcome the fear of being displaced by robotics? How far can one get in developing artificial intelligence? These questions, and (more than likely) many, many more, are most certainly to arise in some point in time in addition to all the questions being asked now.
The debates in robots and roboethics is one that we, as humankind, are just beginning to encounter as sci-fi becomes non-fiction and dream become reality. What decisions will you have to make in the future regarding these circuited companions? I guess only time will tell.