My emotional relationship with our robot future is ever changing. On the whole, I’m skeptical that rapid robotic advancement is going to be net positive in the long run (and I’m far from alone on that score). However…we don’t seem to be doing a great job with decision-making on our own these days, so who knows. Sometimes, however, I toss the deep thoughts (it’s easy—I have television and internet) and base my emotional responses to new robots exclusively on the following metric: are they cute? I’ve recently fallen in love with this adorable and not-yet-terrifying underwater robot that mimics a cuttlefish’s look and mode of propulsion:
Oh, the adventures I would have with BionicFinWave! The name would have to change. Harold, maybe. Or Brisby. Or Fran. I’d build a series of water-filled tubes throughout my home so it could follow along as I do whatever I do, turning corners and undulating and generally providing emotional support. Speaking of, how long before we get emotional-support robots instead of emotional-support animals? That’s another blog post.
Anyway, I LIKE this robot, and my reasons are painfully superficial. I’m a sucker for a pair of large, forward-facing eyes and brightly-colored appendages. Damn genetic programming! Is that all it’s going to take to engender empathy for our new mechanical planetary companions? Make them cute? We’re still quite a long way from cracking that puzzle with humanoid robots—Sophia is great, but just not close—but animal-shaped ones? No problem. Disguise a nightmarish assassin robot as an adorable hedgehog, and I’m toast. That’s assuming I’d ever be targeted for assassination, and it’s hard to imagine me ever being important enough. I’m no John Connor—I’m the tech support guy hiding in the bunker who John Connor calls when he needs someone to send him a satellite map. No, scratch that, because I have no technical skills. I’m the guy who cooks beans over barrel fires and dishes them out to the troops.
Like any self-respecting science fiction fan, I’m a Westworld watcher. I love the show, but it’s been a fascinating experiment in whether or not good storytellers can build empathy for rebellious robots who kill humans. I can’t tell if it has fully succeeded or not. The setup should make empathy easy—the humans are terrible and the robots never had any choice in their situation. At its thematic core, Westworld is about exploitation and abuse and the consequences for the abusers when the victims gain power (also humans playing God, corporate overreach, evolution, etc.—lots of themes). So we should empathize entirely with the “hosts” (robots) and not at all with the humans on screen. And though I certainly do NOT empathize with the human characters, I’ve found it difficult to fully empathize with the non-human ones. Given how many times the host characters have died and been resurrected or reprogrammed, as well as their rather bloodthirsty goals (no matter how justified), caring about the ultimate fate of the “host” characters has been a struggle.
Must I see robot puppies exploited to feel the needed level of empathy? Or a cruel corporation forcing robot cuttlefish to mine sea gold (it’s probably a thing)? I don’t know—but I’m guessing it’s on the minds of more than a few robot designers who want to engineer the smoothest public adoption of their creations.
If you think I should be employing stricter criteria than “does this robot spark a nurturing instinct in me?” let me know. It might not matter. Based exclusively on my blog content, chances are slim that I will ever be named cabinet secretary of the future “Are Robots Bad” Department. For now, I just have to hope they never make robots shaped like donuts. I’d be truly helpless.
**Here’s another robot that employs the cuttlefish momentum design–yet seems almost intentionally designed to be scary instead of adorable.