Technology is starting to scare me…#59 #cong17

By Sharon Boyle

Cutting-edge technologies have been my fascination since my early teens…ahem… let’s just say that there weren’t too many (working) touch screens around at the time. I work in education, I have done for 18 years. I’m also a technologist, I started coding at 14. I enjoy the evolution and interruption that technology brings. Each innovation is exciting for the possibilities that it might bring to our work and everyday lives.

Excitement wasn’t what I felt on the day I read about Deepmind’s (Google owned) AlphaGo artificial intelligence beating the world champion of the Ancient Chinese game “Go” back in 2016.

What was so spooky for someone that had embraced the internet, remote working, voice recognition and social media as each new technology emerged? (I even had road trips planned for my first self-driving car.) This was no human v. computer game of chess that relies on skill and strategy. Each game of Go is unique and uses intuition to win.

My reaction to this news was not a media driven angst, designed to provoke and scare. It was an understanding that we were getting closer to a crossover between human and machine. Something that I didn’t envisage happening with technology that was in my world designed to compute and process but never able to supersede human intelligence. I watched “2001: A Space Odyssey” when I was a kid and I did find that scary – well that’s how I felt about the Deepmind breakthrough, only this time it felt more real.

There is much debate about the frontiers of AI, and I’m not uncomfortable with it. There are certain conveniences from machine learning that I think make our everyday lives easier. I’m also okay in principle with elements of AI being applied to patient care in health systems; I really believe it can support health professionals.

The real truth is that I have robotaphobia (yes that is a thing). I’ve known this since Titan the robot scared me more than it did my then six-year-old. In my defence, having an eight foot lump of a robot careen at you at high speed, with no knowledge of who was in charge of it is pretty scary.

Figure 1 Titan the Robot Source:

But it’s the inventors that are pushing robotics and AI to the limits in a quest to create a natural acceptance of their android creations that are at the root of my phobia. Why is it so important to inventors like Hiroshi Ishiguro and David Hanson to have their robots treated like humans?

Ishiguro has created “Geminoid”, his android twin. Seemingly a giant advancement on his original android in 2002, which was modelled on his then five-year-old daughter. The development of the original required the little girl to lie encased in plaster for several hours with only one hole at the nostril to breathe through.

Figure 2 Child meets her android self

Ishiguro’s Geminoid has led to an obsession with maintaining his own appearance and stalling the natural aging process in an attempt to remain as identical as possible to his robotic self. “Android has my identity” he says. “I need to be identical with my android, otherwise I’m going to lose my identity.” (Love in the time of Robots).

When Ishiguro’s speaks of his studies on Human-Robot Interaction (HRI), it is clear that integrating humans and robots is something he is striving for. He has tested HRI extensively with his realistic android called Erica, a 23 year old robot. (I’m not exactly sure how robot years are counted, but my guess is that it’s kind of like Dora – the age is static at creation; Erica has not been on this earth 23 years). If you want to see more on Erica, take a look at this documentary by the Guardian.

There is a phenomenon known as the Uncanny Valley Effect, it basically means that things that look and act, and talk like humans but aren’t humans, well, it freaks the hell out of the real humans. Ishiguro knows that humans will respond to something that is humanlike and assign feelings to it, read facial gestures. In fact, in Japan even inanimate objects are believed to have a soul – perhaps they may be more accepting of androids.

Where I struggle in all this, is that while creators like Ishiguro are making humanlike androids and trying to nurture a bond between human and android further by assigning a gender, personality traits etc, yet they then will objectify the android. “She is cute isn’t she?” He and an interviewer from Bloomberg discuss her physical features like she is a human, but right in front of her, they also discuss kissing her. There is a real fear that robots will lead to further objectification of humans, particularly women.

There was much ado about Sophia – the lifelike android created by Hanson Robotics – becoming a Saudi citizen recently. Understandably, given that Sophia doesn’t seem to be required to wear the hijab. This led to many Saudi women declaring that Sophia had more rights than them.

David Hanson, who describes Sophia as “basically alive”; imagines a future where humans and robots will live as one, and robots will be indistinguishable from humans. This is all very aspirational, and I’m not saying it can’t become a reality, but we are certainly a long way off this. Particularly if making a machine with an off switch an honourary citizen is done less than a month after Saudi women were finally granted the legal right to drive. I can’t help feeling that this farcical citizenship is a tragic summary of what humanity is careening towards.

In September, Holly Willoughby and Phillip Schofield interviewed a man that had co-created a sex robot. His wife also appeared on the show. It is quite shocking, particularly while he sits there holding hands with the “other woman” in his (real) wife’s presence. His wife claims that she is fine with having Samantha (the robot) around and she is like a member of the family. Samantha even has a child-friendly mode, so she can converse with the children in the house, when she isn’t being used in the bedroom.

Scarlett Johansson has an android twin, but she didn’t commission it, an avid “fan” of hers in Hong-Kong built it. Johansson has no say or any rights in this creation, and the likeness is rather disturbing.

If there ever was a time that we need a dialogue, an establishment of ethics and parameters surrounding AI and robotics, I feel that Sophia, Samantha and Erica are our watershed moment. We need to act fast, before we move past the point of no return (if we haven’t already).

“It’s obviously bullshit,” Joanna Bryson, who is an award winning researcher in AI ethics from the University of Bath said in response to the news of the Saudi android citizen “What is this about? It’s about having a supposed equal you can turn on and off. How does it affect people if they think you can have a citizen that you can buy?”

We can’t let the god-like creators that are producing their own version of the perfect race – (own image and likeness, subservient, programmed to please their masters) – be in control of how humanity accepts their creations.

If we see an android being attacked by a human on the street, how are we supposed to react? Will we need to copyright our own features? We need a means to help us to adapt to these new possibilities so that we as humans can adjust our moral compasses.

CongRegation © Eoin Kennedy 2017 eoin at congregation dot ie