Someday the robots will rise up and kill us all. They’ll record our lives, obliterate our privacy, set off nuclear war, and eventually turn on us and eat our brains. If any of this ever did happen, it would serve us right. We, at least American consumers, don’t deserve the future that robots really have to offer.
Recent evidence abounds. What’s more appalling—a television commercial depicting an industrial automotive robot committing suicide or the public outcry that followed? We have a robot psychiatrist (more on her later) and an entire country—South Korea, not the U.S. (for now)—committed to the “ethical treatment” of robots.Talk about putting the cart before the horse.
It isn’t all the fault of U.S. consumers. Our robotics expectations buckle under the massive burden of fantasy robotics. Our conception of consumer robotics is steered, almost entirely, by science fiction. We confer personalities and cognitive thought on robots before we even see them. We assume that they’ll have human emotions and foibles.
Look at the best-selling book How to Survive a Robot Uprising. With tongue firmly in cheek, Daniel H. Wilson warns that a robot uprising is inevitable. “How can all those Hollywood scripts be wrong?” he asks. He goes on to offer tips for spotting a robot that’s about to turn on you. A servant robot could be moments away from attack if it shows, he says, a “sudden lack of interest in menial labor,” or if it engages in “constant talk of human killing.” It’s funny stuff. The problem is that, especially for Americans, this is about the only way to make robots palatable: Americans see them as jokes, or fantastical beings that should do everything for us but never be fully trusted.
Part of the problem is the Western world’s relatively short history with robots. Most people point to Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a science-fiction play that premiered in 1921, as the first use of the term and America’s introduction to robots. We should take a cue from the Japanese.
In the book Loving the Machine, author Timothy N. Hornyak explains that robots (or at least automatons) have been part of the Japanese culture for hundreds of years. They’re seen as friends, helpers, entertainers, and companions. They’ve always resembled their creators. In fact, modern Japanese robots, like Astro Boy, are hard to discern from humans. It came as no surprise to me that the most advanced and, to some extent, successful home entertainment robot ever, the AIBO, came from Sony, a Japanese company.
What Sony didn’t anticipate, though, was its target market’s antipathy toward home robots. The more powerful and realistic AIBO became (the final version, the ERS-7, looked remarkably like a plastic-covered dog), the less interest Americans showed. American consumers fixate on anthropomorphism and generally find androids and even android pets grotesque. You won’t find a lifelike robot receptionist in the U.S., but there are already many at work in Japan.
by Lance Ulanoff